This story has been updated to include a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) submitted after publication.
CALDWELL — Emails obtained by the Idaho Press show Canyon County jail officials actively reaching out to federal immigration officials to come pick up inmates they suspect of violating immigration law.
In several cases, Canyon County deputies called on federal officials to check on inmates who turned out to be American citizens.
“Have just booked in a foreign born,” wrote customer service specialist Joann James one early Sunday morning. “(S)tates she is a citizen, she is currently being held on a zero bond until court Monday.”
The woman in question, Melissa Castro, was in the Canyon County Jail for several drug-related charges. By 11:27 a.m., a Boise deportation officer emailed his response.
“Travel records indicate this subject is a USC (U.S. Citizen),” replied deportation officer David Perkins. “Therefore, she is not removable from the US and no detainer will be placed.”
The Idaho Press obtained emails between Canyon County and federal immigration officials via a public records request. More than 300 pages of emails were all from the month of March.
The revelation of these emails comes at a time that Canyon County is facing three lawsuits related to its handling of inmates suspected of being in the United States without permission. The lawsuits allege jail staff turn inmates over to ICE even after inmates have posted bond and have a legal right to be released under Idaho state law.
The Canyon County Sheriff's Office has said it must turn inmates over to ICE because the jail honors ICE detainers, or requests to hold inmates longer for the purpose of immigration enforcement.
But the emails obtained by the Idaho Press show the relationship goes even deeper than that. More than just responding to requests from ICE, Canyon County officials are proactively assisting federal authorities.
Canyon County Sheriff's Office staff are instructed to notify immigration officials for "all foreign born inmates," according to the Canyon County Sheriff's Office immigration policy, last revised in January 2018.
If inmates are serving less than one day in jail, have a bond, or the jail plans to simply "book and release" the inmate, staff are instructed to contact the Boise immigration office by both email and three separate phone numbers until someone answers.
Staff at the Ada County Sheriff's Office do not follow this practice, according to spokesman Patrick Orr. Ada County staff notify ICE when inmates who already have immigration holds resolve their cases or post bond, Orr said, but they do not notify ICE for every person born in another country.
"If someone is arrested on a state charge and ICE determines they are in the country illegally, ICE lets us know," Orr wrote in an email statement to the Idaho Press. "It is up to ICE to determine if someone arrested by our deputies or in custody in the Ada County Jail is in the country illegally."
Recently, federal courts have ruled that the use of federal immigration detainers to hold inmates longer in local jails violates the inmates' constitutional rights.
In February 2018, a U.S. District court judge ruled the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and immigration officials violated the rights of suspected immigrants who were detained after they should have been released from jail, according to the Associated Press. Some of those suspected immigrants were U.S. citizens.
Other states — often, in the face of lawsuits like the ones filed against Canyon County — are beginning to limit the ability of local jails to collaborate with ICE. Last month, the Associated Press reported Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a law barring people suspected of being in the country illegally from being kept in local jails simply at the request of immigration officials. The law takes effect Aug. 2.
There are myriad restrictions and rules governing how local and federal law enforcement agencies interact, simply because most local law enforcement agencies aren't empowered to enforce federal law, particularly when it comes to civil violations. Immigration law experts and immigrant advocates claim extensive collaboration between local police and federal immigration officials can blur the lines between the two, making it difficult for local law enforcement to gain the trust they need to keep communities safe. Further, it raises questions of the constitutional rights of inmates and discrimination based on race or national origin.
“There are lots of people here with authority to be here that have become citizens, or lawful permanent residents,” said Kate Evans, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho. “Solicitation of immigration officials based on a characteristic that may or may not have anything to do with a violation of immigration laws, to me, that kind of makes me think more about the potential consequences to community trust for that kind of screening.”
During the month of March, jail staff asked ICE to detain certain inmates, warned deportation officers when inmates might be released on bond, and sent the personal information of U.S. citizens and legal residents to immigration officials.
Leo Morales, the executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, reviewed selected emails at the request of the Idaho Press. He said the county's close relationship with ICE was "alarming" and warranted close scrutiny, particularly because of the intensity and frequency of the collaboration.
"I think it’s also very alarming how proactive Canyon County staff are, requesting holds for certain detainees that they have in their custody," Morales said. "I would say that when local law enforcement interact with other governmental agencies, particularly in the context of detention and potential loss of liberty, we should all be very concerned."
Every week during the month of March, Canyon County staff members sent ICE officials information about inmates they apparently suspected of being undocumented, usually with the email subject line "Foreign born." Other subject lines and emails warned the inmate was "bondable," meaning the person under discussion was likely to post bond and quickly. Sometimes, deportation officers would thank county staff and almost immediately send a detainer. Other times, county staff provided court dates or other information to make sure the inmate left the Canyon County jail in ICE custody.
In one case, another customer service specialist at the Canyon County Sheriff's Office tried to help a deportation officer detain an 18-year-old woman before someone arrived to pick her up.
“Current charges: under the influence of drugs in public,” wrote customer service specialist Cassandra Jordan on Tuesday, March 12, at 8:10 p.m. “This is a Book and Release, but she cannot leave until she has a ride. I had a really hard time booking her in because she is under the influence.”
Mark Love from the Boise ICE office emailed back just eight minutes later.
“How long before she gets that ride? I’m stuck in the middle of a bunch of seats lol.”
Jordan responded a minute later.
“LOL. I don’t think for a while. She has not even tried to use the phone.”
After apparently interviewing the teen over the phone, Love emailed Jordan again at 9:36 p.m.
“I spoke with the girl. If I place a detainee (sic) she’s turning over directly correct? If that’s the case I’ll just send a 203 instead of a detainer. Let me know.” (The 203 form is ICE's order to detain or release an inmate, officially initiating reimbursement for Canyon County.)
Jordan affirmed this.
“Yes she is done with us and will go directly to you.”
Two hours later, Love sent the order to detain the teenager.
Email records indicate Canyon County received a detainer, but the emails were unclear what happened to the 18-year-old after this exchange. The Idaho Press was not able to locate or contact the teenager, identified in email and court records as Jacqueline Torres-Buenrostro.
"Jacqueline Torres-Buenrostro is an unlawfully present Mexican national who entered the United States on an unknown date and at an unknown location," ICE western region spokeswoman Paige Hughes told the Idaho Press in an email Monday.
Hughes confirmed ICE detained Torres-Buenrostro, who had no prior immigration history, when she was released from the Canyon County jail. She was granted bond and released on April 12, Hughes said, and her immigration proceedings are "ongoing."
While in ICE custody, Torres-Buenrostro missed a March 25 county court date for a drug charge, marked as a "failure to appear" in court records. Her case was assigned to the public defender's office shortly after. Even if county officials know that someone cannot appear for their court date because they are in immigration detention, local agencies don't always notify courts why defendants are unable to appear.
Canyon County policies draw concerns
The emails obtained by the Idaho Press display a casual working relationship with immigration officials apparently common throughout the Canyon County Sheriff's Office. In the emails, some staff said they just wanted to give a deportation officer a "heads up" about a certain inmate who was born in another country. Others asked ICE officials to detain an inmate immediately, because Canyon County had received their bond.
"Requesting a 203, bond posted today for local charges," wrote customer service specialist Terrance Balderas at 9:28 a.m. on March 15.
Balderas received a response 30 minutes later.
"Hello," wrote deportation officer Josh Tobias. "Please see attached 203 as requested."
Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker provided documents detailing the Sheriff's Office immigration policies but declined to comment or answer further Idaho Press questions "in light of pending litigation."
Canyon County policies for which staff members work with immigration officials, and when, remain unclear. Nearly every Canyon County staff member interacting with immigration officials in the March emails have the title "customer service specialist."
It was also unclear whether those staff members most frequently interacting with ICE officials had received training to discern someone's immigration status.
"No member of this office shall prohibit, or in any way restrict, any other member from doing any of the following regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual..." reads the section of the Canyon County Sheriff's Office policy manual for immigration violations, citing U.S. Code 1373.
The proceeding list details what the March emails show sheriff's office staff to be doing regularly: sending information to ICE, requesting and receiving information from ICE, maintaining that information in office records, and exchanging that information with "any other federal state or local government entity."
"How proactive Canyon County is about immigration is problematic," Morales from the ACLU said. "The county already finds themselves in the lawsuit. Determining a person’s immigration station, especially with lay people, there is a lot of room for error."
Throughout the month of March, Canyon County staff sent the personal information of several inmates, based solely on whether that person was "foreign-born." Many times, immigration officials themselves told Canyon County they could not detain the inmate for immigration purposes because the inmate in question was a legal resident or a U.S. citizen.
In the case of Castro, her March interaction with Canyon County and immigration officials was not her first time in the Canyon County jail. According to a string of drug-related sentencings dating back to 2005, when the first offense landed her in the Southwest Juvenile Detention Center, she’s been a frequent visitor. Her immigration status was questioned and supposedly approved in 2017. It's unclear why Canyon County still sent her full name, date of birth and Social Security number to a deportation officer.
Legal challenges and concerns
Canyon County's policy manual for immigration violations provides "guidelines to members of the Canyon County Sheriff's Office for investigating and enforcing immigration laws."
"A deputy may detain an individual when there are facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that the individual entered into the United States in violation of a federal criminal law ... " reads the policy manual section on enforcement. "A deputy should not detain any individual, for any length of time, for a civil violation of federal immigration laws or a related civil warrant."
A lack of English proficiency may be considered as reasonable suspicion that a criminal immigration violation has occurred, but "it should not be the sole factor." The policy goes on to say that staff and deputies should make a "reasonable effort" to accommodate people with limited English proficiency — but only "when practicable."
Attorneys from Immigrant Justice Idaho, who are suing Canyon County three times for its collaboration with immigration officials, said Canyon County was "risking liability" each time they chose not to release an inmate simply due to an email or request from ICE.
“These lawsuits relate to Canyon County’s refusal to allow our clients to be released from custody solely due to a request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that they remain detained," wrote Ben Stein, an attorney with Immigrant Justice Idaho, in an email statement to the Idaho Press. "When a county continues to detain anyone longer than state law allows simply due to a request from ICE, the county is engaging in a warrantless arrest."
Evans, who researched immigration detainers and local law enforcement for a forthcoming Brooklyn Law Review article, said judicial rulings have established the use of detainers to hold inmates as "warrantless" second arrests. Evans said many immigration charges are civil, federal offenses — something local law enforcement officers historically have not had the power to enforce.
"It’s not whether federal immigration officials can issue these documents," Evans said. "It’s really whether Idaho state law allows their own police officers to make these arrests."
ICE submitted the following statement via email on Tuesday, June 11, after publication:
“The relationship between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Canyon County is an indispensable component of promoting public safety in our community," wrote Matthew Murphy, acting deputy field office director for ICE's Salt Lake City field office. "As part of our country’s lawful immigration system, ICE has an intergovernmental service agreement with Dale G. Haile Detention Center for the detention and care of persons arrested on criminal charges and subject to removal proceedings."
“ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations officers are responsible for evaluating each case when determining whether to assume custody of a removable alien from Canyon County. Individuals are transferred to ICE custody using the proper documentation only after ICE officers determine the subject is amenable to removal proceedings. If an individual referred to ICE posts a bond or is released from local law enforcement prior to completion of the ICE investigation into the subject’s immigration status, ICE does not request local law enforcement continue to detain the subject. ICE seeks cooperation with state and local law enforcement and has never requested them to enforce federal immigration law. We maintain that building cooperative, respectful relationships with our law enforcement partners promotes our mission of protecting the public from criminal alien offenders.”