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Regional Interests

Clark County Jail’s communications with ICE raise legal questions

The ICE building in Portland, June 29, 2021.
The ICE building in Portland, June 29, 2021.

After refreshing the webpage throughout one evening in April 2020, Simon finally saw his brother’s name disappear from the Clark County Jail’s online roster. He’s free, Simon thought.

Simon had posted the $35,000 bail that morning. He spent the day awaiting his brother’s release. When the name disappeared, he expected a phone call from his newly freed brother. It never came.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement had stepped in, picking up Simon’s brother before he had even one foot out the jail. It was later revealed in court that jail staff aided the federal agents — allowing them to walk into a restricted area of the jail. The jail staff would later cheer the agents on in emails.

“Great job! Go get him!” one staffer wrote to ICE agents April 23.

Jail staff hadn’t known anything about Simon’s brother when they tipped off ICE, other than he was born in Mexico and had been arrested on second-degree assault — charges that were later dropped.

For Simon, his brother’s deportation stings more than a year later.

“I think that you should not be judged by the color of your skin. You should not be judged from the background you come from,” said Simon, whose real name OPB is withholding because he has more undocumented family members.

“Just because your name is not John Smith,” he said, “you get to be treated differently.”

Records recently obtained by OPB show Clark County Sheriff’s Office continues to share inmates’ personal information — particularly that of Latinos — with ICE. As recently as February, the jail and federal agents communicated almost daily.

Civil rights groups and researchers said the records show local law enforcement flouting protections that were put in place to create more of a firewall from federal immigration enforcement. Enoka Herat, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the county is opening itself up to lawsuits and is damaging its credibility with immigrant communities.

“Collaboration not only exposes the county to liability but it also undermines trust between law enforcement and segments of the community they’re sworn to serve,” she said.

Lawmakers passed the Keep Washington Working Act in 2019 as a referendum on the Trump administration’s deportation policies. The so-called sanctuary state law prevented agencies from disclosing personal information without a signed warrant from a federal judge.

“Seeing officers going out of their way to use local resources to further a federal agenda was exactly the kind of policy that this law was intended to stop,” Herat said.

Almost every morning, immigration agents set into a routine. They check the county jail roster, copy names, then fire over a list to the jail’s staff when most people are still drinking morning coffee.

“Good morning Betsy,” wrote ICE agent Conrad Salvato at 7:57 a.m. on Jan. 4, attaching a list of eight names to the email. “I hope your new year is to off to a great start. Can you send me the DOBs for these inmates?”

Instead of treating the emails from ICE like any other request for public records — which often take governments weeks to review, redact and release — jail staff responded 12 minutes later.

Staffer Betsy Di Grigoli attached the birthdays on every name. She noted, in fact, her new year was going well.

“I hope that you are enjoying 2021 thus far,” she wrote. “By the looks of things it appears that your 2021 has been, and will be busy.”

The exchanges are similar most days. The records obtained by OPB show hundreds of emails throughout 2019, as well as a window from November 2020 to February 2021. Most emails from the year 2020 have not yet been released. Clark County has released the emails in batches, leaving gaps in information.

Through the first six months of 2019, according to the records, county staff provided birthdates for about 350 people, according to OPB’s analysis of the records. From November to January, they disclosed roughly 40 birthdates.

The vast majority of names ICE agents inquire about are of Latin American descent, but sometimes Asian or Eastern European, the records show.

After obtaining birthdates, federal agents often returned to ask follow-up questions on one or two of the names. With the honed list, they ask for up-to-date mugshots, arrest reports that often contain a person’s home address, and even copies of fingerprints.

When asked to what end ICE uses the information, a spokesperson declined to specify.

“Like other federal law enforcement agencies, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations does not discuss specific law enforcement tactics and techniques,” said spokesperson David Yost.

The emails show an almost constant back-and-forth between local and federal officers. Jail staff routinely answer questions and provide the personal information within minutes.

“Absolutely! That’s what I’m here for … to assist,” wrote Di Grigoli on Feb. 2 after an ICE agent thanked her for supplying a mugshot of a man who agents later sought to detain.

In some cases, the records show, a person appears to go from an unknown to an ICE target within a matter of hours.

For at least five people from November 2020 to February 2021, immigration agents included a person’s name on the morning request for birthdates. After immediate follow-ups for mugshots or arrest reports, agents sent paperwork to the county signaling they intended to detain that person.

Cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and immigration agents concerns the ACLU of Washington, Herat said.

The organization has joined other civil rights groups in confronting local agencies when they violate the state’s sanctuary law. In October, they co-authored a letter to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office demanding they “cease conduct” of sharing information similar to the way Clark County does.

Herat said the pace of the email conversations in Clark County shows a closer relationship than state law allows. She said the law calls for ICE’s data collection efforts to be handled like a formal request for public records.

“I think it’s important to remember that these laws were meant to protect people’s privacy, and people’s rights,” Herat said. “Having one’s privacy violated by law enforcement sharing information, in a way they’re not supposed to, is in and of itself a problem.”

When asked if ACLU Washington plans to send any such letter or litigate Clark County policies, Herat said they are “still reviewing all the information.”

“We’re keeping all options on the table.”

When Simon’s brother landed in ICE custody, civil rights groups not only condemned the practices that violated the law, but criticized the cozy relationship in the first place.

A deputy had proactively flagged Simon’s brother to ICE agents, who in turn thanked the deputy for bringing him to their attention. They said “he looks like someone we’d definitely target.”

Similar practices had occurred throughout 2019, both before and after Gov. Jay Inslee signed the sanctuary state law into place.

Emails show jail staff volunteered people’s home addresses multiple times, so long as it was already listed on the arrest report they were sending via email. However, that practice appears to have ended by November 2020.

Few acted more collaboratively that year than Clark County Deputy Paul Bond, the records show. On roughly 30 occasions in 2019, the deputy emailed federal agents with a subject like “one to check.” In the emails, he disclosed to ICE agents the names of people newly lodged at the jail whom he knew to be born in other countries.

On Sept. 11, 2019, in response to the sanctuary law passed four months prior, Chief Corrections Deputy Ric Bishop directed staff to stop alerting ICE when the jail system flags someone as possibly undocumented.

About two weeks later, on Sept. 27, Bond tipped off agents about a man jailed for driving under the influence. ICE agents filed a detainer less than two hours later.

“Yeah, he’s illegal,” agent Salvato wrote. “I notified our guys that work in Clackamas to keep an eye out for him when he’s transferred there.”

The records provided by the county also show emails occurring within the last six months where county detectives and ICE agents sent each other encrypted messages. OPB has requested those messages be disclosed as public records.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions sent via email or requests for an interview.

An ICE official who declined to be named on the record noted that law enforcement agencies naturally tend to work together when they overlap in the same communities.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, who are investigating local agencies’ compliance with Washington’s sanctuary law for their own research, said they are concerned with the seemingly tight relationships that may lead to violating state immigration policy.

“I assume the proximity to the ICE office (in Portland) might facilitate development of deep relationships, but you can see in the frequency of communication a really tight level of relationships and reciprocity,” said Angelina Godoy, the center’s director.

The full extent of the two agencies’ relationship is likely not ascertainable by emails. The records don’t capture phone calls, text messages or in-person visits, the researchers and civil rights attorney said.

“The real worst is probably someone out there that is just picking up the phone and saying ‘He’s here right now, come get him,’ that kind of thing,” Godoy said.

Godoy and other researchers said they aren’t researching every county in Washington, but are seeing collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement agencies elsewhere. They said the collaboration takes on many forms throughout the state, such as one county near the northern border that more willfully detains people after they post bail.

“There is a type of conversation of coordination, but it just looks very different at each county,” said researcher Tara Saleh.

Simon and his sister Carmen (not her real name), said their brother’s deportation has made the last year even more difficult.

Carmen recalled the night the jail released her brother. Like Simon, she expected to be notified. When it never came, they called A-Affordable Bail Bonds, across the street from the jail.

According to Bryan Nester, president of the bail bonds company, the jail told the bondsman that Simon and Carmen’s brother had been released. What the jail staff did not say, at least initially, is that ICE was waiting for the man upon release.

Security footage in the jail that the family’s attorney viewed under a subpoena showed jail staff allowed ICE entry into the jail’s sally port — a restricted area — to take their brother into custody.

“We just felt very deceived,” Carmen said.

Most of the family-of-12 made their lives in Clark County. Carmen, a mother of two, is a real estate agent. Simon drives a truck for a metal distributor.

Their brother owned his own painting company, but is now living near Mexico’s border with California. Work available to him pays a fraction of what he’d earn in the U.S. Carmen and Simon said they send their brother money regularly.

As the eldest, he had embraced a role as caretaker for their elderly parents. Their mother, in particular, remains despondent she can’t see her son more often, the siblings said.

“She just says ‘You’re a mom, you should understand. Even if I had 20 kids, if one of them is not here, it will never be the same,’” Carmen said.

Carmen lamented her brother’s deportation for a second-degree assault charge, which stemmed from a fight with his son. They said the fight started when he threw away pills his son had been taking addictively.

“He had a good case. He just didn’t have a chance to explain it,” Carmen said.

The relationship between the Clark County Jail and ICE has Carmen worried about her other family members who are undocumented, even as Washington state law — at least on paper — should afford them some level of protection.

“If they get in any sort of trouble, something very minor, you know, I don’t think they will get a fair chance,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting