Challenging Far-Right Sheriffs

In his first week in office, Donald Trump delivered on his campaign promises made to the xenophobic and racist Right. In direct response to the anti-immigrant fervor that propelled him to the White House, Trump signed an executive order expanding the priority of the notorious 287(g) agreements, first drafted by the anti-immigrant movement and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which allows ICE to enter into agreements with local law enforcement agencies and deputizes them to enforce federal immigration law. The number of these agreements ballooned 135 percent after the executive order, bolstering a security state that explicitly targets immigrants and communities of color.

Two days later, Trump signed an Executive Order banning visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, suspending entry from Syrian refugees indefinitely and all other refugees for 120 days. In a few short days, he had cemented himself as a staunch and powerful ally of the anti-immigrant movement.

Recognizing the growing influence of this movement in this moment, PRA took a closer look at these 287(g) agreements, the networks propelling them to popularity, and the agents of the state tasked with carrying them out.

With the presence of elected law enforcement officials in dedicated Patriot and anti-immigrant organizations, these movements are significantly more “suit and tie” than believed.

A uniquely elected branch of law enforcement dating back to colonial North America, county sheriffs have featured heavily in the right-wing imagination for generations. Their role as elected law enforcement officials ties neatly into narratives of local control and security favored by the Right. The 3,081 county sheriffs (90 percent are White men) oversee jails, which at any given time, hold approximately a third of the total incarcerated population in the United States. While the office of sheriff and law enforcement more broadly has been critical to upholding White supremacy since this country’s founding, there has been a concerted effort in the last decade to mobilize sheriffs towards further supporting and expanding systems of racialized social control and expulsion.

By examining the documented roles that 404 sheriffs play in far-right and anti-immigrant movements, PRA research identified a logic countering much of the framing around the far right as extremist, radical, or fringe. With the presence of elected law enforcement officials in dedicated Patriot and anti-immigrant organizations, including the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, these movements are significantly more “suit and tie” than believed. The election of Donald Trump–who ran on a heavily nativist, anti-immigrant platform–and his appointed cabinet only served to reinforce this truth.

In the face of growing 287(g) agreements and deportations (sheriffs are responsible for more deportations than any other branch of law enforcement); no term limits for sheriffs, and significant power wielded over some of the most vulnerable populations—including jailing and evictions—it became clear that the public narrative around county sheriffs needed to shift to highlight this dangerous intersection of far-right and anti-immigrant movements and elected law enforcement officers. A new coalition specifically focused on addressing antidemocratic sheriffs needed access to concrete evidence tying these sheriffs and their administrations to well-resourced, organized antidemocratic movements. With these two constituencies in mind—national journalists and their audiences and anti-policing, immigrant rights, and “decarceration” movement organizers—PRA researched, aggregated, and designed a set of resources to support challenging repressive sheriffs.

These efforts have built on a decade of work documenting Christian and xenophobic social movements building inroads into law enforcement. A wave of far-right networks began courting law enforcement in communities across the country in response to the Obama administration, including anti-Muslim activists, the organized anti-immigrant movement, Patriot/militia groups, and Christian right movements. These alliances emboldened sheriff support for policy initiatives such as “second amendment sanctuaries” and formal agreements with an increasingly overzealous immigration enforcement. They also paved the way for law enforcement, and their unions, to become political spokespeople for the broader MAGA agenda. Since the Trump administration came into office and continued to build cozy relationships with sheriffs nationwide, sheriffs have taken stands on a range of far-right issues, including refusing to enforce COVID-19 lockdown orders, supporting “Stop the Steal” movements, and participating in the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Law enforcement have also been complicit in vigilante attacks and intimidation against racial and immigrant justice protests.

In documenting and challenging far-right sheriffs, PRA has:

  • Contextualized and detailed the alignment and lobbying of sheriffs through investigative reporting and analysis, including publishing rigorously fact-checked articles, collaborative reports, and press interviews with journalists.
  • Shifted public narrative away from viewing far-right sheriffs as individual racist and hate-minded law enforcement officers to members of two well-known, highly organized, and well-funded far-right social movements with deep ties to powerful right-wing politicians and funding networks.
  • Created an interactive map depicting the spread of national anti-immigrant and patriot movement aligned sheriffs nationally, the location of 287(g) agreements, and detailed profiles of all former and current far-right aligned sheriffs, which is updated following regularly-scheduled sheriffs’ elections.
  • Participated in a coordinated effort to build a field of opposition to far-right sheriffs within the social justice movement, in part by preparing and delivering extensive briefings and research trainings to organizations and networks working within the existing fields of racial and immigrant justice, decarceration and defund efforts, and policing reform.
  • Supported organizers through the creation and filing of numerous FOIA requests tracking local collaboration between law enforcement, developers, local politicians, etc, and by providing investigative and fact-checked research support.
  • Established a committee to strategize against far-right law enforcement within an emerging national coalition, Communities for Sheriffs Accountability (CSA). The coalition is comprised of criminal justice advocates, criminal rights groups, and racial justice groups largely based in the South; the strategy committee within CSA is working on documenting the threat of far-right sheriffs, identifying the systemic and social movement influences, and developing narrative talking points for dissemination to the media.

An Early Win

PRA’s reporting and PRA researcher involvement working closely with the Bristol County Correctional Justice organization led to ICE ending its agreement with Bristol County, Massachusetts in early 2021 and closing its detention facility there.