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Five immigration questions for Nevada candidates

Michael Kagan
Michael Kagan

I keep waiting for someone running for statewide office in Nevada to say something interesting about immigration. Ask a Democrat about immigration, and expect to hear a talking point supporting DACA. Ask a Republican about immigration, expect to hear about opposing “sanctuary cities.” Ask a different question about immigration, and expect to hear about DACA and sanctuary cities again. On education, the candidates come out with multi-point policy statements. But on immigration, it is as if there are only two talking points, one for each party.

This is a shame. Per capita, Nevada has one of the largest immigrant populations in the United States. It might be fair to say that no one should run for statewide office in this state if they do not have a deep understanding about immigration policy. But since most immigration policy is set in Washington, it requires thoughtfulness to propose policies that state and local governments could enact that would make any difference in real people’s lives. Democratic candidates like to show that they welcome immigrants, while Republicans these days tend to link immigration with fighting crime. But this is just rhetorical signaling, for the most part. Very little of what the candidates have said so far gives voters much of a clue about what they would do if elected, if anything.

But we still have some time before voting opens. What follows here are five questions that voters and journalists might want to ask our candidates to try to move them beyond their talking points. I’ll try to explain why each issue matters - and why at least some candidates might prefer you not ask them about it.

QUESTION 1: Who should Nevada police turn over to ICE?

This is possibly the most urgent immigration question facing state and local government, and few officials have tried to answer it publicly.

Many people in deportation proceedings got there because they were first arrested by local police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prefers that local authorities alert them when a potentially deportable person has been arrested, so that ICE can come to take custody of them. But local and state authorities are generally under no legal obligation to help ICE. It’s a choice. They can decide to help ICE always, never or only in certain kinds of cases. This decision is made by our local and state officials, and it has a direct bearing on who in our community gets deported. This is how, at the local level, we can get a say in which of our families stay together, and who among us is sent away.

Republican candidates typically describe cooperation with ICE as a way to fight crime. Adam Laxalt, the current attorney general who is running for governor, says that he specifically opposes “sanctuary” laws because he wants to get “dangerous felons off the streets.” The Nevada Independent did an interview with Republican attorney general candidate Wes Duncan in which he said: “In terms of sanctuary cities, I do not believe a city or state should refuse to work with federal authorities when they have arrested a felon who is in the country illegally.” But he did not say — and to be fair, it is not clear that the Independent asked — whether he supports working with federal authorities to deport an immigrant who is not a felon. 

The irony here is that the rhetoric on immigration from Laxalt and Duncan sounds a lot more like President Obama than President Trump. Obama’s policy was to force ICE to prioritize “felons, not families” for deportation. The biggest on-the-ground change that the Trump Administration has brought to immigration enforcement is a dramatic increase in arrests of immigrants without a criminal record.

On the Democratic side, candidates tend to show more sympathy for immigrants put at risk by Trump’s policies. Candidate for governor Steve Sisolak has said that “instead of tearing families apart, we should demand that Congress create a workable pathway to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants.” His primary opponent Chris Giunchigliani’s campaign website says, “I fully support comprehensive immigration reform with a reasonable path to citizenship” and objects to the Trump Administration “tearing families apart.” But that doesn’t make very clear what kind of policies either one would support as governor.

The recent deportation of David Chavez-Macias, a Reno resident who had been in the U.S. for 30 years, is a typical case. His most serious criminal record was a traffic violation. I cannot find any example of Laxalt or Duncan clarifying whether they supported this deportation, although many other state officials voiced their objections. On March 17, Sisolak tweeted that deporting Chavez-Macias “is heartbreaking and shameful.” But while he signaled general sympathy, he didn’t say what he would do about it if he became Governor. The decision for Nevada is whether we should help ICE deport people, especially when they are not “dangerous felons,” to borrow Laxalt’s phrase. Should Nevada police turn people over to ICE whenever ICE says so? Should Nevada do so only when a person has committed a serious crime? Should an unpaid traffic ticket lead to deportation? 

QUESTION 2: How can you make immigrants feel safe calling 911?

Since Donald Trump’s election, big city police chiefs and the National Domestic Violence Hotline have been sounding the alarm about a precipitous drop in Latina women reporting domestic violence and sexual assault. No one thinks this is because fewer women have been assaulted. The urgent concern is that immigrants are afraid to ask the police for help, because they are afraid they or their loved ones will be turned over to ICE. This fear can affect undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants and citizens, because many Nevada families include people with different legal statuses living under the same roof. It would be typical for a U.S. citizen teenager to live with one citizen parent, one undocumented parent and an undocumented grandparent. Now imagine that teenager in danger, terrified, panicked about what to do, and hesitating to call the police when she needs them most, because she fears getting her mom or grandma deported. That’s the problem.

Laxalt and Duncan probably do not want to talk about this problem. They want closer cooperation between Nevada police and federal immigration agents. But it would be fair to argue in response that these policies will scare victims of crime, and help domestic abusers and other criminals by intimidating immigrant families. That said, I have not seen Democrats talk much about this issue in Nevada, either. The most common solution proposed to address this problem is to restrict when local police can turn people over to ICE. But a candidate who proposes that will be accused by Republicans of tying the hands of law enforcement and supporting “sanctuary.”

There may be room for a thoughtful middle ground. For instance, a state could agree to cooperate with ICE when the person at issue is a violent felon but not in other cases. But so far, candidates in both parties are avoiding the issue nearly entirely.

QUESTION 3: Should local police in Nevada work for ICE?

Ask this question if you want to make Democratic attorney general candidate Aaron Ford uncomfortable.

Right now, Las Vegas Metro has an agreement with ICE (known as a 287g agreement) under which Metro officers in the county jail are allowed to work as federal immigration agents, screening people to be turned over to ICE for deportation. As majority leader of the state senate, Sen. Ford initially co-sponsored a proposal which would have restricted the degree to which Nevada police departments would be allowed to partner with ICE in this way. But he then blocked the bill from getting a hearing when it was clear that it would face strong opposition from law enforcement. But at the end of August, the Republican governor of Illinois signed a bill nearly identical to the one that Ford blocked. It will be reasonable for voters who care about immigration to ask why, as the leader of the Senate Democrats, Ford could not give a hearing to a bill moderate enough to be signed by a Republican in another state. Wes Duncan, Ford’s opponent this year, will probably take every possible opportunity to attack Ford for having originally sponsored the very same bill.

But Duncan and Laxalt might also want to tread carefully. Data shows that having a large immigrant population does not increase crime rates. By talking about immigration solely as a crime control problem, these candidates are open to charges of demagoguery on an explosive, racially tinged issue. As more and more stories emerge of ICE targeting longtime Nevada residents with no serious criminal records, it may become awkward for candidates to just say they support cooperation with ICE and move on to the next question. The central problem for Republican candidates is that their rhetoric focuses on deporting serious criminals, but the policies they support sweep much broader, and that raises disturbing questions that have too rarely been asked directly of the candidates.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, who is running for lieutenant governor, backed a state constitutional amendment purporting to ban “sanctuary cities” in Nevada. Roberson explained this as a means of targeting “violent criminals” and that he wants “to ensure that when our law enforcement arrests a dangerous criminal alien they are able to cooperate with federal authorities to keep our communities safe.” But the amendment he proposed (which has been blocked in the courts) does not contain any reference to crime, arrests, police or violence. It simply mandates cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, even if that enforcement is targeted against immigrants who have never even had a speeding ticket. This gap between words and deeds may simply reflect carelessness by politicians more interested in headlines than policy. But if Sen. Roberson understands the details of what he proposed, then serious questions need to be asked about whether he and those with whom he campaigns are deliberately using fear of crime as a gloss for a broader assault on immigrants in Nevada.

There’s also the question of Nevada’s independence. The agreement that Sheriff Lombardo signed cedes control of local police officers to ICE. The agreement says that the Metro officers in the 287g program must follow ICE policies. That means Metro officers are carrying out policies set in Washington, not in Las Vegas. And, in fact, Metro and ICE do not articulate the same priorities. Sheriff Lombardo and Metro usually say they only want to remove serious criminals, while ICE says that any undocumented immigrant is a target — including, say, a person arrested for unpaid traffic tickets, or a victim of domestic violence. Surrendering control of Nevada police to Donald Trump might not be popular.

QUESTION 4: Would you support using local or state funds to pay for immigrants’ legal defense against deportation?

Immigration law is famously Byzantine. Most immigrants navigate this system alone, facing a prosecutor from the Department of Homeland Security on the other side. The position of the federal government is that these proceedings can be fair regardless of whether the person whose future is at stake has a lawyer. This includes children who cannot even read, a fact recently lampooned by John Oliver. In the Las Vegas Immigration Court (which has jurisdiction over the entire state), 60 percent of people whose deportation proceedings started in fiscal year 2018 have no lawyer to assist them. Since 2001, people who go to the Las Vegas court without a lawyer have been ordered deported 79 percent of the time, compared to just 21 percent for those who have lawyers. The Texas Tribune recently showed that states that do a better job providing lawyers to immigrants end up with a far lower percentage ordered deported.

Las Vegas increasingly stands out today as a large city with a significant immigrant population that has done next to nothing to provide free legal defense to immigrants fighting their deportations. Nationally, there are now publicly funded deportation defense programs in at least 16 cities and countries, two states and the District of Columbia. Many operate through partnerships with private foundations that match public investments. These programs keep families and communities together. But there are none in Nevada. Nevada’s immigrant community is large, vulnerable and largely undefended. The social cost and the lack of fairness ought to be enough of a concern. But there is a fiscal cost for our states and counties, too. When working moms and dads are taken from their families, we should expect burdens on social services to increase. We should expect the children to have greater needs and to require more resources from our school districts. Deportation is a great way to instantly transform a family that earns money and pays taxes into a family in crisis that is dependent on the state.

Politically, supporting deportation defense is one of the most tangible things a state or local government can actually do to oppose President Trump’s immigration policies. The Nevada Democratic Party and its donors have poured considerable amounts of money into citizenship and voter registration drives in immigrant communities, because Democratic candidates in this state depend on high turnout from immigrant communities. But how much money have they put into defending these voters’ families when federal agents come knocking? The fact that so many other states and cities have started to address this makes inaction in Nevada especially difficult to justify. 

If anyone does raise the idea of funding immigrant legal defense, the safe bet would be that Republican candidates will dismiss it out hand. But it would be good to ask where they draw the line. Would they give a five-year-old child a lawyer, or make her face the government alone? Would they give a lawyer to the breadwinner of a family, with U.S. citizen children and no criminal record? Would they give a lawyer to someone who had already shown the government a credible fear of persecution? It is possible to favor strong enforcement of immigration law, and still insist that the procedures be fair and consistent with the highest American standards of due process.

QUESTION 5: Would you support allocating more state funds to help DREAMers?

Many candidates - Democrats especially - are happy to profess their support for young people who were raised in the United States but who are undocumented, known commonly as DREAMers. But typically what they say has little relevance to the work that goes on in Nevada state government. Candidates will say they oppose President Trump’s decision to end DACA. They will say they support the Dream Act. Both of which are policies set by the federal government.

But should the state of Nevada do anything for DREAMers, especially when they lose DACA and hence are no longer able to work legally? How should Nevada universities respond when students lose their employment authorization and thus can no longer pay tuition? This would be a more interesting question for a candidate running for a Nevada state office. Should school districts establish special counseling programs to help undocumented students? For conservatives who favor relaxing business regulations, would you favor allowing all immigrants to obtain professional licenses in Nevada? Again, here is a golden opportunity for a thoughtful candidate willing to go beyond talking points.

I could ask more questions. But given how little of substance candidates have said so far, this seems like enough to start.

Disclosure: Joseph Lombardo, Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

Michael Kagan is a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. He tweets @MichaelGKagan.


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