Saul Servin sells Mexican candy and party planning services at Dulceria El Girasol, his store on the corner of Shields Boulevard and SE 29th Street in Oklahoma City. He remembers parents weighing the cost of a child’s birthday party against the need to save — in case one parent got deported.
“We were all feeling a lot of anxiety because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Servin said about his community. “We didn’t know if we, as immigrants, were going to be able to stay in this country.”
That was three years ago when the Trump administration encouraged local law enforcement to identify, flag and hold undocumented immigrants in local jails. Flagged individuals faced increased prospects of deportation.
Recent immigration data, however, shows Servin’s customers, who are primarily Hispanic immigrants, may now have less cause for concern. Fewer people are being flagged for immigration detention. The majority of those detained in Oklahoma stand accused of serious crimes.
The number of people arrested locally and flagged for questionable immigration status fell 45% nationally and 38% in Oklahoma as of June 2020, according to data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The Syracuse organization — which bills itself as an independent and nonpartisan source of federal enforcement, staffing and spending information — obtains the data through litigation and public records requests.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Canadian, and Okmulgee counties have also decreased since the second half of 2020, the data shows.
Okmulgee County Jail, for example, averaged 208 ICE detainees a day in late 2019. As of January 2022, that number dropped 87.5% to a daily average of 26.
Immigration advocates, legal professionals and local law officials attribute the declines to two main factors: The COVID-19 pandemic and the Biden administration's immigration enforcement priorities.
The Impact of Cross-Deputizing Local Sheriffs
Former President Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order required U.S. immigration officers to cross-deputize local jail officers as immigration agents and allow them to perform federal enforcement duties. Among those duties: Identifying undocumented immigrants and flagging them for potential deportation.
Under these 287(g) agreements, local agencies were also mandated to report the number of “ICE detainer requests” they honored after flagging someone. Those failing to report were barred from receiving some federal grants.
ICE detainer requests reached their peak under the Obama administration — in 2011 nationally and in 2012 in Oklahoma.
After reaching a monthly low of 85 in July 2016 — a presidential election year — they spiked to 321 in March 2017.
Immigration advocates say the 287(g) agreements allow local law enforcement to racially profile people in Hispanic communities and unconstitutionally detain flagged individuals. A Tennessee woman filed a federal lawsuit seeking $2.5 million in damages from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which arrested and detained her for four months after she dialed 911 seeking rescue from her violent boyfriend. Maira Oviedo-Granados, a mother of three, immigrated from Honduras in 2014 seeking asylum.
Latino community leaders and immigration attorneys say 287(g) agreements erode trust in law enforcement within immigrant communities. They are still waiting for President Joe Biden to keep a campaign promise to end the agreements, which 146 sheriffs nationally maintain.
Among them are three Oklahoma sheriff departments — Canadian, Okmulgee and Tulsa counties.
Multiple calls to the Okmulgee County Sheriff’s office were not returned. Unsuccessful efforts to seek comment from the Canadian County Sheriff’s office included multiple phone calls and an in-person visit.
Until late 2020, Tulsa County Sheriff’s office was also engaged in a beds-for-dollars contract with ICE to hold people in federal custody. Coupled with 287(g), the agreements allowed Tulsa County to identify someone undocumented, flag them for ICE and hold them in federal custody until they faced immigration court.
Vic Regalado, the son of Mexican immigrants and Tulsa County’s sheriff since 2016, said Biden’s policies on immigration enforcement have caused him to revise his ICE agreements.
With fewer people flagged for possible deportation, allocating beds at the Tulsa County jail for ICE detainees was less economically feasible, Regalado said. Individuals held in the jail for ICE are now transferred upon entering federal custody.
Regalado said that while it’s true fewer people are being flagged, held and deported, the Biden administration’s latest immigration enforcement guidelines have also led to more serious criminals being released on bail in recent years.
“In the past, we had detention officers that had been trained through ICE to be able to access their (computer) programs and determine whether an individual was here illegally or not,” Regalado said.
The jail now must wait for ICE officials in Washington D.C. to decide whether they will assume custody, he said. Regalado gave an example of Tulsa County sheriffs’ 2021 arrest of a drug runner who shot at an officer and missed.
“We brought him to the jail for shooting with intent to kill, drug trafficking, and some other civil charges,” Regalado said, “He bonded out, and within three hours he disappeared. Who knows where he is now.”
Concerns About Racial Profiling
Linda Allegro led protests against the practice of deputizing officers as immigration agents in Tulsa from 2016 to 2019. She heads New Sanctuary Empowerment Center, also known as El Centro, an immigrant support organization that raised money for the families of individuals facing deportation.
“We stood out in front of the jail every Friday,” Allegro said. “When COVID hit, we stopped. Then Biden won the election, and we knew that deportations were not going to be a priority.”
Her group sprung from a larger one called the “End 287(g) Coalition” that was pushing Sheriff Regalado and Tulsa County Commissioners to end agreements with ICE entirely.
United We Dream, a national immigrant advocacy organization, was part of the coalition. Cynthia Garcia of Oklahoma City is the national campaign manager for community protection at United We Dream. Garcia said ICE agreements give officers the opportunity to racially profile people.
“It’s not even a question of whether that person has committed a crime,” Garcia said, noting that police can “use the nuance of ‘we’re checking for driver’s licenses,’ or ‘we’re checking for insurance’ but what they are really doing is targeting the Latino population, identifying folks who are undocumented.”
After his 2016 election, Regalado faced criticism for continuing the 287(g) agreement.
“Misinformation surrounded this program like I’ve never seen any other program surrounded before,” Regalado said. “We had individuals who were publicly telling people that we were holding individuals here who had simply run a stop sign or had a traffic warrant.”
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s office has never enabled the deportation of someone who wasn’t already requested by ICE or charged with serious crimes, Regalado said.
Pressure from immigrant advocates prompted him to compile a roster of Tulsa County jail detainees held under 287(g) showing the reason they were arrested.
That data shows that between March 2019 and December 2021, 70 people were flagged by one of the six designated immigration officers and detained. None have been flagged in 2022.
A March 1 spot check of Tulsa County jail’s roster showed 58 people with an “ICE hold” designation. Regalado said those are people facing local charges who have been flagged by ICE. They will be released on bail or after they face the local judicial system unless ICE decides to assume custody of them.
“It’s just a request (from ICE) to say, ‘Hey call us before release in the event we want to process them,” he said, explaining that once someone is transferred into federal custody, Tulsa County loses track of the person. They are taken to a federal — usually privately owned — detention facility.
Once someone is released from a local jail to ICE, they become hard to track, said Susan Long, director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse research center at Syracuse. Those detainees tend to be mixed with immigration detainees from different parts of the country.
This makes for discrepancies between people flagged in jails like Tulsa’s and the number of detainees ICE reports in a facility located nearby.
“It’s a really messy situation,” Long said, “and local police are sort of caught in the middle. They’re responsible for the public safety of the community, and if you’ve got a large immigrant community, it’s often mixed in legal status.”
Chris Shoaf, a Tulsa resident and member of the End 287(g) Coalition, has been tracking ICE hold designations at the Tulsa County jail since he learned about 287(g) contracts in 2016.
His 2020 data shows that of the 329 people on ICE hold at David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center, half of them were charged with non-violent crimes. Of those, 70% were charged with driving under the influence.
“I think I could give a compelling argument why multiple DUIs is something you shouldn’t be doing if you’re here in this country illegally,” Regalado said. “But what’s never reported is that we let multiple people go because they were brought in for things like traffic violations. That narrative never gets pushed out.”
Shoaf said his data shows fewer people are being flagged and immediately transferred to federal custody. In 2021, there were 45 of 58 non-violent immigration detainees who faced charges of driving under the influence. Three had more than one offense.
State Legislature Also Plays A Role
Tulsa County has consistently been second to Oklahoma County for the most honored immigration detention requests — despite Oklahoma County’s having no ICE agreements.
Instead, the Oklahoma County jail, which has been run by a trust since July 2020, relies on a state law passed in 2021 requiring local jails to honor all requests by ICE to hold persons arrested locally and allow immigration agents “reasonable access” to jail rosters.
Cynthia Garcia said the relationship between ICE and Oklahoma County is stronger than Tulsa’s because Oklahoma County allows ICE agents based in Dallas access to the jail and roster.
“It’s one of the biggest concerns here locally,” she said.
Multiple calls to the ICE field office in Dallas went unanswered.
Saul Servin has owned his south Oklahoma City candy store for eight years but has lived as a permanent resident in the state for 17. He said after reporting suspicious shoppers and being involved in a few car accidents, he’s never experienced profiling or discrimination from the local police.
The fluctuating level of fear is predicated by statements from the White House because people don’t take the time to learn where their rights stop and end as immigrants, he said.
“There was a time when we were afraid to call the police for help because we would think of what Trump was saying,” Servin said, “not about what the officer was going to do when he arrived at the scene.”
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.