BUZZ: Iced Out

By on October 4, 2017

ICE policy changes mean no one—from Jackson and beyond—are safe from crackdowns.

Jackson Hole, WY — Bad news for undocumented residents of Jackson and beyond: Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently changed their policy regarding targeted undocumented individuals, and it’s left everyone—including local law enforcement—in the dark.

The one thing everyone’s sure of under the ICE changes, though? It looks like no one—even those without criminal records—are protected.

Exactly when the policy change took effect, or why, is unclear, because despite promises to local law enforcement that officials would inform them of any changes.

Sheriff Jim Whalen said he was in the dark until about two weeks ago.

“It’s disappointing,” Whalen said. “ICE always told us, ‘If we change our policies, we’ll let you know.’ And that’s what we told our community.”

Now Whalen says his department has to deliver the message of a change they didn’t even know existed until ICE showed up in town last week.

Under old policy, ICE was only interested in undocumented people with a criminal background who were perceived threats to public safety.

Under the new policy, anyone suspected of being in violation of immigration law is now a target.

“There’s no protected class now,” Whalen said.

Whalen only learned of this policy change after local attorney Rosie Reed of Trefonas Law PC called him and asked if he was aware that ICE was detaining people for “immigration violations only.”

He wasn’t.

Whalen checked his records and verified that Reed’s information was correct: ICE detained at least five people last week, at least one of whom had no criminal record.

“I called ICE immediately, what gives here?” Whalen said.

ICE officials in Denver effectively said, “Sorry, we thought you already knew.”

They then flew their deputy director into town to meet with Whalen and Chief of Police Todd Smith.

“He pretty much said exactly as we said, they have a policy shift, but he doesn’t believe it’s gonna change really much here at all,” Whalen said.

Whalen doesn’t know the reason for the change, nor does he know exactly when it happened. But he wants the community to know that on his end, nothing will change.

“We are business as usual,” he said.

Whalen said the sheriff’s department will not detain anybody taken into custody for immigration violations only.

“We won’t accept them into the jail. We will still do it for other folks that have committed law violations, but we won’t for immigration violation alone. Nothing changes as far as our operations go.”

Any time ICE comes to town, Whalen braces himself for a wave of panic. Until recently, he always knew how to diffuse it: Nothing has changed, this was a routine visit, only individuals with criminal records were detained. No need to worry.   

This news, he said, is “certainly a departure from what we told you last month.” But he still doesn’t want anyone to panic.

“I still don’t think we’re there,” he said. “Continue with your lives as you have been.”

But the new policy raises questions about who ICE is targeting, and how.

As far as Whalen understands, ICE uses an “informational hotline” to collect information about people who might be undocumented. But there’s no way for them to filter that information. ICE’s Denver office did not respond to requests for comment.

“Don’t you see what that could create?” Whalen questioned. Suspicion, fear, distrust. People saying, ‘You pissed me off today so I’m gonna call ICE.’”

Whalen hopes that’s an extreme and unlikely scenario, but ICE has the authority to act on any and all information, even if it isn’t substantiated or corroborated.

“I fear that other things could happen as a result,” Whalen said.

He’s also a little disappointed that ICE won’t deliver their messages to the community directly.

“They don’t seem to care enough about the communities that they’re affecting,” Whalen said. “If I had a policy change that was going to affect 25 percent of the population, I’d stand in front of them and face the music.”

Still, Whalen says overall his relationship with ICE remains trustworthy. He doesn’t anticipate any big round-ups or raids. But the policy shift certainly aligns with President Trump’s Jan. 25 order to buckle down on the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Trefonas Law reminds immigrants that they do not have to talk to officers unless the officer has a warrant, nor do they have to reveal any identifying information about them or their families. And Whalen wants the sheriff’s department to remain an office of public safety, not of fear.

“Living in fear is the worst way to live,” he said. “We all live with some risk in mind, but none so visceral as believing at any moment somebody can come take me away from my kids, family, something like that. It’s a tough way to live a life.”

Whalen, Smith, and lawyers from Trefonas Law will be available to answer more questions and provide any further clarity on policy changes Thursday night at St. John’s Episcopal Church from 5:30 to 7 p.m in Jackson.

“We just wanna be able to stand in front of folks and take questions,” Whalen said. “We’ll be the messengers. Don’t kill the messengers.” PJH

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