The Immigration Crackdown: When Pragmatism Trumps Ideology

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Last month, President Donald Trump held a  “roundtable”’ with county sheriffs, culled largely from the leadership of the National Sheriffs’ Association. As an early endorser of the Trump campaign, the association and its membership roll of elected sheriffs from largely rural counties across the nation have made highly visible efforts to align themselves with the new administration.

This puts them in the company of rank-and-file police unions like the Fraternal Order of Police—and at odds (on several issues including immigration) with police leadership organizations like the Major Cities Chiefs Association and International Association of Chiefs of Police.

None of the ten sheriffs named in the official transcript oversee jurisdictions with the so-called 287g agreements that allow state and local law enforcement agencies to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agency to enforce federal immigration laws.

Two of the sheriffs mentioned in the lead-up to the event—Sandra Hutchens of Orange County, CA (profiled in an earlier column),  and Daron Hall of Davidson County, TN—do hold current 287g agreements. Regardless of whether Hutchens was present at the sheriffs roundtable or not, Trump made a point of thanking her by name in his remarks to the Major Cities Chiefs Association earlier in the day.

Maintaining close ties with loyal supporters at different levels of government appears to be a characteristic feature of Trump’s approach to governance.  So it will be important to watch closely the implications for immigration enforcement where these political connections are mirrored by administrative links like 287g.

Alabama’s Etowah County has held contractual relationships with ICE (and its predecessor the INS) dating back to its first detention agreement in 1998. Its 287g agreement, though a more recent endeavor, dates back at least to 2008.

These administrative links do not, however, appear to be mirrored by political ones.

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin was in fact an early supporter of (relative) immigration moderate Marco Rubio. Nevertheless, it’s worth adding his county to this continuing series of “Jurisdictions to Watch” on immigration enforcement against the background of the Trump Administration’s efforts to enforce the 287(g) program and step up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

While Etowah County does not appear to have started deportation proceedings for a significant number of immigrant arrestees under its 287g program, it has processed large numbers in proportion to its small overall population and even smaller immigrant population.

For immigrant advocates,  Etowah County is an important jurisdiction because of this exception, rather than in spite of it.  It presents an opportunity for engagement on issues of public safety that is unusual in 287g jurisdictions nationwide.

Sheriff Todd Entrekin. Courtesy Etowah County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Entrekin is a Republican serving what appears to be a highly conservative Alabama constituency. But he does not appear to be an ideologue.

Rather, his decision-making regarding immigration enforcement appears to be a pragmatic outgrowth of his agency’s long standing role as an immigrant detention provider. The available evidence suggests that Entrekin recognizes the importance of open communication between immigrant communities and law enforcement, which suggests a public-safety orientation more typical of law enforcement executives in larger cities than elected sheriffs.

Here, following the outline of previous articles in this series, is an analysis of  Etowah County.

Etowah County, Alabama

SHERIFF: Todd Entrekin

Entrekin, a Republican, was first appointed Sheriff by then Alabama Governor Bob Riley in 2007, following the death of his elected predecessor, James Hayes. Entrekin has since won reelection twice, in 2010 and 2014. He has been an outspoken supporter of both 287g and Secure Communities, testifying before congress in support of both programs in 2011. This support does not appear to extend to the nativist political posturing adopted by some elected sheriffs, however: in his testimony regarding Alabama’s restrictive anti-immigrant 2011 state legislation, HB 56: Entrekin testified that the law “would not only burden local law enforcement in a negative fashion, it would burden other social services as well.”


There were 63 in 2012, a number considerably smaller than the thousands processed in many other 287g counties, but proportionately significant for Etowah County’s low population (about 104 thousand residents, 3.3% of whom Hispanic or Latino).


The Etowah County Detention Center, with a capacity of 357, occupies an $8 million wing of the Etowah County Jail. In 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) funded this expansion directly in order to outfit the facility to house long-term detainees.

Despite this investment, conditions at the facility have long been considered problematic, sufficiently so that ICE announced the facility’s closure in 2010 (an effort that was halted by the political intervention of local representatives) and it was featured by the Detention Watch Network in its 2012 Expose & Close series as one of the “worst in the country.”


The Etowah County Jail held an average of 341 immigrants on any given day throughout 2012. Per diem/per detainee compensation was $45 in 2015 – consistent with rates at other Alabama facilities but among the lowest in the nation overall. Gross receipts for detention in Etowah thus exceed $5 million ($45 x 341 detainees x 365 days = $5.6 million).

However, Etowah’s IGSA details compensation for additional services such as transportation that have the potential to add significantly to this total. A very small proportion of this total – about $170 thousand ($45 x 63 processed for deportation x 60 day average stay), or around 3% –  could potentially be attributed to enforcement activity under 287g.


As detailed above, 287g enforcement in Etowah County appears largely to be an outgrowth of the relationship established in 1998 with a detention contract, possibly reflecting a desire at the time of its original signing for closer ties to shore up the deteriorating status of the troubled Etowah County Detention Center.

Having neither a significant undocumented immigrant community, nor (as one of the smallest and most densely populated counties in Alabama) a significant agricultural economy that might attract non-resident immigrant laborers, Etowah’s 287g program would be equally difficult to justify as a response to a clearly defined crime problem within an immigrant community, or to postulate as a cynical attempt to increase detention numbers.


 Etowah County’s approach to 287g enforcement raises essential questions about the tools that advocates have at their disposal to directly address the relationship between federal immigration enforcement and local law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The clearly problematic conditions for long-term detainees in the Etowah County Detention Center are an issue for another context; setting them aside, we can perhaps recognize Sheriff Entrekin as a pragmatic decision-maker, managing an inherited relationship with significant budgetary implications for his agency and jurisdiction overall.

It is important for advocates to recognize the potential presented by a pragmatic sheriff who appears to prize evidence-based public safety concerns over ideological posturing. Credible messengers in a position to promote evidence-based public safety policy among elected county sheriffs are few and far between.

This is in sharp contrast to law enforcement leadership from major cities: while it remains to be seen what impact the outspoken support for evidence-based public safety policy among the latter will have on federal law enforcement policy, they have at least set a precedent for engaging directly and publicly with the Trump administration on its law enforcement agenda.

To date, there is no parallel engagement effort on the part of elected county sheriffs.

Indeed, the National Sheriffs’ Association appears more interested in treating the administration’s first 100 days as a prolonged victory lap than engaging on general or specific issues related to an evidence based public safety agenda.

How will 287g enforcement play out in a jurisdiction like Etowah given this context? Will it reflect the kind of outreach Sheriff Entrekin has recently made to the immigrant community in his jurisdiction, and if so, does this indicate the potential for direct engagement with Entrekin around the public safety implications of the Trump administration’s intended approach?

For some pro-immigrant advocacy organizations, any goal short of ending local police involvement with immigration enforcement will be insufficient. Nevertheless, the value of any “credible messenger” within the ranks of the nation’s county sheriffs can hardly be overstated, especially one who might make a case for setting prudent limits around the use of immigration enforcement as a public safety tool.

Daniel Stageman

Whether Sheriff Entrekin has this potential remains to be seen, preferably through the lens of a more thorough local investigation.

Daniel L. Stageman, PhD is Director of Research Operations at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a criminologist whose scholarship focuses on making sense of America’s punitive approach to immigrants. He can be contacted at dstageman(at) His last article in this series, an analysis of Frederick County in Maryland, was published on TCR March 2. Dan welcomes readers’ comments.

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