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Is ICE ‘shipping’ migrants to Utah? Lawmakers say yes, ICE says no

A bill passed this session would require federal immigration officials to notify Utah police when they’re ‘releasing’ migrants in the state. Utah officials say it speaks to a broader lack of communication.

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 7, 2024

Gregory Bull, Associated Press

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif., July 8, 2019.

In December, Utah Transit Authority officers responded to a family of six sleeping outside of a bus station in Salt Lake City.

Originally from Venezuela, the family communicated to officers through Google Translate, telling them they came from Denver on a Greyhound bus “and did not have anywhere to go,” according to a UTA police report. It was 33 degrees and the family’s four children — ages 2, 5, 7 and 9 — were sleeping on the ground, wrapped in blankets.

The father told police he was awaiting an immigration hearing, the report states, although the court’s location is redacted. The officer ultimately took the family to a service provider, where they were fed and given warm clothing, blankets and shoes.

This was the incident described several weeks ago during a legislative committee meeting where lawmakers approved a bill that would require federal law enforcement, specifically U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to notify the Utah Attorney General’s Office before “releasing” an undocumented person in the state. The bill would also require federal officers to notify the sheriff in the county where the migrants will be released.

The bill has no teeth, and Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson told lawmakers, “we don’t have any recourse if they don’t comply. But it certainly does send a message.”

However, the bill and the debate around it put a spotlight on the fraught relationship between ICE and Utah law enforcement, who claim poor communication from federal agencies is straining local resources.

Is ICE really ‘shipping’ migrants to Utah?

Sponsored by Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, HB165 passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Lee said it’s in response to migrants seeking asylum being “shipped” to Utah by federal officials.

“We’re not given any notice. They’re not telling us where. They’re not communicating. That’s creating a lot of problems,” Lee said during the Feb. 22 committee meeting.

However, the December incident documented by UTA Police makes no mention of ICE. And on Monday, an ICE official told Utah News Dispatch the agency does not coordinate or pay for the travel of “non-detained” foreign nationals traveling to Utah, whether by bus or plane.

The official clarified that any attempt to transport migrants by bus or plane coordinated by a city or state government, or nongovernmental organization, is done so without ICE involvement. Agency policy requires non-detained migrants to first meet with ICE personnel before relocating to another state. The migrants are “responsible for their own travel coordination and related expenses,” the ICE official said.

“ICE doesn’t transport people like this, on a Greyhound bus,” said Adam Crayk, a Utah-based immigration attorney. And the migrants that arrive, like the family described in the police report, are still required to check in with an ICE official, he said.

“They have check-ins, where they have to show up and tell ICE what they’ve been doing and they have a notice to appear in immigration court,” he said.

In many cases, it’s unclear who is sending migrants to Utah, but evidence that it’s the federal government actively paying for transportation is slim. That was the sentiment from Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Millcreek, during the February meeting.

“My city is the one that has been receiving all these immigrants that are being shipped out. But they’re not coming from the federal government. They’re coming from other states,” said Stoddard, who told Lee “the examples you’re using are not accurate.”

Speaking during the committee meeting, Anderson said reports of “busloads and planeloads” of migrants showing up in Utah are inaccurate. But he did point to several incidents where foreign nationals awaiting their immigration hearing arrived in Utah via bus or plane, including a family of nine that showed up at a shelter in Salt Lake City around late January or early February.

“They came from Boston. But what we have yet to figure out is how they got on an airplane,” he said. It’s unclear whether it was the state, city, a shelter, a nongovernmental organization or ICE that sent them.

Anderson told lawmakers the family was registered with ICE in Boston, “but that communication was not relayed to Salt Lake when they were transported out there.”

“As individuals identify Utah as a place they want to come to, it is on ICE or our other federal partners to notify the state. We lack that communication and most of the time we do not find out until after the fact that they’re here,” Anderson said.

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith maintains that instances of ICE releasing undocumented migrants in Utah have been happening more often, describing a deteriorating relationship and fraught communication between ICE and local police.

That tension boiled over last year when a field office director for ICE penned an internal memo designating Utah a sanctuary state, meaning state officials are not cooperating with federal immigration agencies. In Utah County, that meant immigrants detained by ICE awaiting immigration or deportation hearings were no longer held in the county jail.

The memo implied that local police, including Utah County Sheriff’s deputies, were releasing “violent immigrants.”

In the memo, Smith said the field director “lied about the situation to try to politically put the sheriffs in a bad situation. … We really can’t trust what this individual is telling us at this point because of the way he has behaved.”

Utah County had severed its contract with ICE before Smith became sheriff over logistical issues, he said. The migrants detained by ICE were not criminals — instead, they are under what’s called a civil hold and are often awaiting a deportation hearing.

“We’re a criminal facility … we are not set up for civil holds,” Smith told Utah News Dispatch, noting that ICE has a list of procedures for civil holds that the jail couldn’t follow.

The Utah County Jail holds inmates for the U.S. Marshals, and Smith said they’ve asked ICE multiple times if they could follow the same guidelines for those detainees, but they refused.

‘Let us know what you’re doing’

Smith said ICE is most guilty of not communicating with local law enforcement, but all federal agencies could improve.

“If you come into our county and do something, let us know what you’re doing,” Smith said.

Often, residents see federal officers serving warrants, carrying out raids or arresting their neighbors, and call local law enforcement.

“We’re put in a position where we don’t know, because no one has told us,” Smith said. “We communicate with them. So we’re asking for the same back.”

Smith said an example was the FBI’s summer raid in Provo that resulted in the death of Craig Robertson, a 75-year-old man who was under investigation for making specific, violent threats to President Joe Biden and other elected officials.

The FBI says Robertson was shot dead after he pointed a gun at agents serving a warrant at his home the same day Biden was scheduled to speak in Salt Lake City. Smith said the Utah County Sheriff’s Office had no prior knowledge of the raid. He clarified that he wasn’t criticizing the raid itself, but rather the lack of communication.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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