Our sheriff is acting as an immigration agent
Probably illegal, clearly not his role; why won’t Tim Whelan say so?
Cape Cod’s sheriff is the only one left in Massachusetts willing to act as a federal officer for ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, investigating immigrants, lining up deportations.
He’s being sued for that, on grounds that he doesn’t have the legal right to partner in this federal relationship, spending time and our money. That suit, filed by civil rights lawyers in Boston, looks like a slam-dunk, and neighboring sheriffs, faced with similar challenges, saw the handwriting and stopped trying to “build that wall” around here.
Yet Barnstable County Sheriff Jim Cummings, soon to retire, refuses to pull back, and presumably will use public resources and funds to fight this suit.
State Representative Tim Whelan, running to replace Cummings (with the incumbent’s blessing), stands by the idea that the county should be ICE agents and proactively investigate whether people might be undocumented.
Donna Buckley, also running, served as general counsel for Cummings so understands the situation and likely reviewed it. Now she has told local press she would put a stop to what is known as a “287(g) agreement.”
Wayne Bergeron, who served as Dennis selectman for 15 years, is one of two dozen Massachusetts taxpaying plaintiffs spearheading the suit, six from Cape Cod. He believes the program “casts a shadow over a seasonal economy such as ours which relies on an immigrant workforce; and here on the other side of the jail’s walls, where people of color already are too easily maligned and mistreated.”
Most important, Bergeron argues, there is no evidence that our sheriff acting as an ICE agent improves public safety. The Plymouth sheriff stopped the program (facing similar legal action), “and did the crime rate go up in Plymouth county?” he asks. “Of course not.”
Attorney Oren Sellstrom with “Lawyers for Civil Rights,” a group born during the early years of the civil rights movement, sees the case in a long tradition of “racial and immigrant justice impact litigation.” But his attack is not based on morality:
“The powers of sheriffs are very tightly circumscribed,” Sellstrom argues. “The state legislature has wisely refused to authorize Massachusetts sheriffs to enter into agreements with the federal government for immigration enforcement … Without that authority, the agreement and Sheriff Cummings’ ongoing expenditures under it are unlawful.”
Cummings has not specified how much staff time and resources he has dedicated to this, though in recent years overtime for the sheriff’s department has been a real problem; some of that might well relate to federal immigration investigations.
Sellstrom and team have taken this straight to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a tactic allowed because it was filed by a coalition of taxpayers. Whether the SJC will hear or remand to a Superior Court is not clear. There is no timeline for action.
With an election in November, a new sheriff may inherit this suit – and headache. Buckley has been clear that she wouldn’t need an SJC ruling to follow Plymouth and become the last Massachusetts sheriff to put an end to 287(g).
But Tim Whelan, the favorite in this race, won’t go there. This is disappointing, and he should know better. He’s been a conscientious state rep from the mid-Cape since 2015, a former state trooper, a guy who walks the walk. He also votes on state budgets, and should understand that a county sheriff has no business creating fed contracts that require shelling out state resources.
Perhaps Representative Whelan feels he can’t contradict his fellow Republican, political friend and champion Jim Cummings. But that’s speculation, because Whelan would not respond to numerous requests to discuss this.
Some see a fundamental wedge issue here, though all who do likely will vote for Buckley anyway.
The real point is not political. It’s about the message we send to our immigrant community – and our respect for legislature and law.
If other elected officials can’t or won’t pressure the sheriff to get rid of this ICE contract, here’s hoping the courts move quickly, because Sheriff Cummings and whoever follows him needs to understand something fundamental:
The job is to run a secure jail -- humanely, with a focus on rehabilitation, without gender bias.
Not deport immigrants.
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