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Utah sheriffs fed up with ‘sanctuary state’ debate

‘Stop demagoguing issues you don’t understand,’ association president tells political candidates

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 5, 2024

Charles Reed, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

In this Feb. 7, 2017, file photo, foreign nationals are arrested during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens in Los Angeles.

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association had strong words for political candidates who say Utah’s immigration policies make it a sanctuary state: “Stop demagoguing issues you don’t understand.”

That’s according to a statement released Tuesday from Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, the president of the association, who blasted “candidates for high office” calling Utah a sanctuary state to “score cheap political points.”

“Any candidate blaming local officials for the failures of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is demonstrating to voters that they don’t understand important issues facing our state and country,” Smith said. “It’s bizarre that Republican candidates for high office would keep repeating false statements that have been walked back by the Biden Administration. It’s even more bizarre that candidates in Utah would malign local law enforcement without first knowing the facts.”

The statement didn’t name any candidates. But two in particular have referred to Utah as a sanctuary state in the last year, one as recent as this week.

In October, Riverton Mayor and U.S. Senate Candidate Trent Staggs flagged a memo penned by ICE’s Salt Lake City Field Office Director Michael Bernacke that claimed Utah was a sanctuary state.

Several counties had severed contracts with ICE that allowed them to hold migrants awaiting detention hearings in their jails, and the memo said Utah sheriffs were “destabilizing ICE’s law enforcement capabilities in Utah and surrounding states.”

“I was horrified to learn that the Salt Lake City Field Office … had to designate Utah earlier this year as a sanctuary state,” Staggs said at the time.

The memo implied that local police were releasing “violent immigrants,” according to Smith. But most of the migrants detained by ICE were not criminals — instead, they were under what’s called a civil hold, often awaiting a deportation hearing, Smith said.

“We’re a criminal facility … we are not set up for civil holds,” Smith told Utah News Dispatch in February.

Local politicians and the Utah Sheriffs Association immediately pushed back, calling Staggs’ statement “naive and uninformed.” ICE quickly rescinded the memo and Staggs released another statement, saying he was “disappointed by the name-calling and uncivil dialogue” from the sheriffs. That was the last of Staggs publicly calling Utah a sanctuary state.

But gubernatorial candidate and outgoing Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, has latched on to the idea that Utah is a sanctuary state, making criticism of Gov. Spencer Cox’s immigration policies a keystone of his campaign rhetoric.

“Someone explain to me how we are not operating as a Sanctuary State,” Lyman posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday.

Lyman did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but in an interview last week he explained the sentiment.

“As far as sanctuary state nonsense, that’s purely an executive level function of executive level action,” he said, pointing the finger at the governor’s office. “Why do we bow down and comply with ridiculous federal regulations and then allow them to put a label on us, when all we have to do is say, ‘We’re the state of Utah and we enforce our laws, period.'”

Lyman said the state’s jails not meeting the criteria for ICE detentions — which is why counties severed their ICE contracts to begin with — is not an excuse.

“You don’t let them out. We should detain them anyway. Why would we put a dangerous person back out on the street?” he said.

In his statement, Smith with the sheriffs association urged candidates to reach out to a local sheriff before repeating the sanctuary state claim.

“Unfortunately, these candidates have not even bothered to ask a sheriff about the issues. If they had, they would know that anyone arrested for criminal charges in Utah are processed through the Utah justice system, regardless of their citizenship status. We have individuals who are in this country illegally and who have broken state laws that are in our jails right now. Those criminal charges go through our state courts just like they would for anybody else,” Smith said.

Smith said calling Utah a sanctuary state implies the sheriffs and other law enforcement are at fault for the country’s immigration policies.

“To claim the current border crisis and its impact on Utah is the fault of Utah’s sheriffs or Utah leaders, is a ridiculous attempt to shift blame,” he said, while calling on ICE and the Biden administration “to do their job and secure our borders.”

Sanctuary state, or city, is a loose term with no legal definition often used to refer to a government’s cooperation, or lack thereof, with ICE. Terminating contracts with ICE to use county jails as detention centers is a common example of a sanctuary policy.

Other examples of sanctuary policies include prohibiting city employees or police from asking about immigration status, preventing local law enforcement from being deputized by ICE to carry out federal immigration law, restricting the construction of immigration detention centers or refusing to allow ICE agents into jails without a warrant.

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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