Iowa Sheriffs Consider Whether to Remain a Sanctuary

Feb 17, 2017

Until recently, sheriff’s departments in 26 Iowa counties pursued policies described as “sanctuary” protections for undocumented immigrants. That number appears to be going down.

The Franklin County Courthouse in Hampton.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

At the start of a public forum in the gymnasium of Hampton-Dumont High School, some ground rules are laid out by the event's organizer, Sister Carmen Hernandez.

“I would ask that any comments, or political comments and opinions might be saved for another time," she tells the crowd. "That probably won’t happen, but just so we know.”

Sister Carmen is director of La Luz Hispana in Hampton. It’s a gathering place for the local Hispanic community. Her desire for a polite question-and-answer session with Franklin County Sheriff Linn Larson is realized. Before bleachers packed with a mostly Latino audience, Larson explains a change in direction for his department.

“My new policy states we will work with any federal law enforcement agency," he says. "The only change is that in the past the sheriff’s office was not going to work with the immigration service.”

The newly elected sheriff is changing a policy informally followed until now, by around a quarter of Iowa counties. President Trump made clamping down on so-called sanctuary cities and counties a key campaign talking point. Trump has issued an executive order to withhold federal money from municipalities that refuse to report a person’s immigration status to federal authorities. The 90-minute forum in Franklin County drew many questions from immigrants afraid of deportation if stopped by law enforcement, or arrested. Sheriff Larson says the 48-hour detainer rule from Immigration and Customs Enforcement applies for those booked into jail.

A mural on the town square of Hampton.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“It is my understanding immigration has 48 hours at that point to determine if it is going to further investigate or release," he says. "At the end of that 48 hours, there is a release.”

By contrast, the sheriff of Iowa’s largest county says he will continue limited cooperation with immigration officials. Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarthy says he will work with federal agencies in every way, but he will not hold people without an explicit order from a judge.

“We believe it’s inappropriate to hold someone in a jail without lawful authority," he says. "Currently, that lawful authority does not exist.”

Sheriff McCarthy’s stance is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. Its legal director is Rita Bettis.

Part of the crowd that gathered in Hampton for a public forum on changes to the sheriff's department policy on undocumented immigrant protections.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“When local law enforcement honors these detainers and holds somebody without a warrant or other legal justification, they violate that person’s Constitutional rights,” she says.

The issues surrounding immigrants’ rights are growing increasingly serious in rural areas of the state such as Franklin County. Thirty-five percent of the student population in the Hampton-Dumont schools identify as Hispanic. Latinos own and operate a dozen or so local businesses. Much of the farm labor in the area is supplied by immigrants. Sister Hernandez sums up the message she heard from the crowd attending the Q-and-A with Sheriff Larson.

Franklin County Sheriff Linn Larson addresses a forum in Hampton with interpreter Pia Hovenga.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“We are here to stay, we are here in great numbers, we offer a large amount of economic structure, economic power to the city of Hampton,” she says.

A single forum in a small north Iowa county will not end the debate about communities adopting sanctuary policies aimed at protecting the undocumented. Fourth District Congressman Steve King criticized a move by the Des Moines School Board to adopt sanctuary resolutions for immigrant and refugee students. A bill intended to limit sanctuary practices among Iowa’s counties, cities and public universities is moving through the Iowa Legislature.