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Sheriffs are enthusiastic about enforcing U.S. immigration law. That makes a big difference.

- May 30, 2017
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 23, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A week ago Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that any city that refuses to share information with the federal government about immigrants could lose federal funding. Called sanctuary cities and states, these geographic entities resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to increase immigration enforcement have gotten a great deal of news coverage.

But what about their opposites — the local governments eager to enforce the new immigration mandates? County sheriffs, who are largely elected via popular vote, play an important and often ignored role in immigration enforcement — and are more likely to support federal enforcement efforts than comparable local officials.

That’s why it’s interesting that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke recently announced on Twitter that he would accept a top position in the Department of Homeland Security as a liaison with state, local and tribal law enforcement and governments. Clarke is controversial for a variety of reasons, including his views that undocumented immigrants are given too many rights in the United States, especially in sanctuary cities.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/24/no-sweden-isnt-hiding-an-immigrant-crime-problem-this-is-the-real-story/”]No, Sweden isn’t hiding an immigrant crime problem. This is the real story.[/interstitial_link]

Nor is Clarke the only provocative sheriff associated with the Trump administration. Former sheriff Joe Arpaio was discussed as a possible head of the Department of Homeland Security. Our research suggests that is probably no surprise. Sheriffs are more likely than other law enforcement officials to support strict enforcement of immigration laws.

The Trump administration has said that it will expand Immigration Authority Section 287(g) of the 2009 Immigration and Nationality Act, a voluntary federal program that deputizes local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. The Obama administration curtailed this program (by reducing funding) in favor of Secure Communities, largely because 287(g) is very expensive. Secure Communities requires that law enforcement check the immigration status of anyone booked into jail through the federal fingerprint database.

Our research shows that sheriffs matter in shaping immigration enforcement

Since President Trump took office, an increasing number of sheriffs have applied for new 287(g) memorandums of agreement (MOAs) with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And immigration arrests and deportations of nonviolent offenders have increased dramatically.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/03/trump-wants-an-immigration-system-overhaul-do-americans-agree/”]Trump wants an immigration system overhaul. Do Americans agree?[/interstitial_link]

We conducted a national survey of more than 500 sheriffs in 2012 and asked them about their attitudes, policies, and practices in their offices. Sheriffs are interesting because unlike most police chiefs, they are elected officials with a lot of independence and power — and a lot of responsibilities for making and carrying out policy. Studying sheriffs lets us look at how attitudes shape policies among elected officials.

So what do sheriffs think about immigration and immigrants?

Generally, sheriffs favor more resources and power to control immigration but do not have really negative attitudes about immigrants themselves.

We found that 85 percent of sheriffs agree that there should be more federal spending on tightening border security and preventing illegal immigration. And 70 percent of sheriffs thought that law enforcement should be allowed to ask about individuals’ citizenship status during routine patrols. That’s true even though only 38 percent say that immigrants take advantage of jobs and opportunities here without doing enough to give back to the community.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/03/22/why-trumps-potential-restrictions-on-highly-skilled-immigration-could-shift-jobs-overseas/”]If Trump restricts skilled immigrants, the U.S. could lose jobs to other countries[/interstitial_link]

We also found that sheriffs who identify as liberals or as Hispanic, or are elected in more liberal places, are more likely to have positive attitudes about immigrants.

Do their attitudes influence the actions of local law enforcement?

To answer that, we first need to look at when and whether sheriffs have their subordinates examine someone’s immigration status.

So we asked sheriffs when their officers check the immigration status of someone “who might be” an unauthorized immigrant. Most sheriffs (almost nine out of 10) report that they check for immigration status when someone is arrested for a violent crime or booked into jail, which complies with ICE’s requirements under the Obama administration. Two-thirds said they checked the immigration status of those arrested for nonviolent crimes. A much smaller share — just over one in four — reported that their officers check the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses or those stopped for traffic violations.

When sheriffs have negative attitudes about immigrants — thinking, for instance, that immigrants should be able to overcome prejudice without help, their departments are more likely to check the immigration status of victims of crimes, witnesses, and those stopped for traffic violations, even when controlling for the characteristics of the sheriffs, their office, and the community they represent.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/03/sanctuary-cities-do-not-experience-an-increase-in-crime/”]Sanctuary cities do not experience an increase in crime[/interstitial_link]

To be more specific, only 13 percent of sheriffs with immigrant-positive attitudes reported that their officers routinely check the immigration status of someone during a traffic stop; fully 33 percent of sheriffs whose attitudes toward immigrants are negative do so. A sheriff’s attitudes about immigrants were not associated with whether the office checks the immigration status of those convicted of crimes or booked into jail; across the board, 88 percent of sheriffs said that was their department policy.

Immigrants are reporting fewer crimes

According to the news site FiveThirtyEight, since Trump’s inauguration immigrants in three major cities are reporting fewer crimes to police. Apparently they are afraid that their immigrant status will be checked, leading to deportation.

Of course, the sheriffs in our study may wish to look “tough on crime” — and so are overreporting their offices’ efforts to check immigration status. Even so, this rhetoric has important consequences. If more than one in four sheriffs report that their office checks the immigration status of crime victims and witnesses, people may be less likely to help police combat crime.

Whom we elect to local office matters. Sheriffs hold an understudied office in political science but one with broad, expansive powers. These powers may grow, particularly because the Trump administration is dedicated to more actively enforcing immigration laws.

Mirya R. Holman is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University and author of Women in Politics in the American City (Temple University Press, 2014).

Emily Farris is an assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University, focusing on U.S. local politics and racial and ethnic politics. Find her on Twitter @emayfarris.