Dave Hutchinson, pictured here during his 2018 campaign, ran successfully for Hennepin County Sheriff on a platform to change how immigration enforcement actions happen in the county. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

During his campaign for Hennepin County Sheriff three years ago, Dave Hutchinson promised he would change the way immigration enforcement actions happen inside the jail of the state’s largest county.

His predecessor, Rich Stanek, developed a reputation for working closely with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which drew sharp criticism from immigrant advocates. Hutchinson campaigned on a platform opposing this. 

Now, more than halfway into his four-year term, Hutchinson has touted success on following through with those changes. But a coalition of immigrant advocates faults Hutchinson for keeping his predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies largely the same during the first two-and-a-half years of his term. 

In particular, critics have called out his office for sharing information with ICE on nearly 1,000 inmates during the first two years of Hutchinson’s term. 

“Even one name on a list like this is too many,” said Daniel Romero, a community minister at Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis and an organizer with the Decriminalizing Communities Coalition. 

The Hennepin County Jail holds people who are arrested for criminal charges like DWIs, physical assault, and drug offenses. Separately, some of these people arrested may have open cases with U.S. immigration authorities. They may have overstayed their visas or entered the country illegally, for example. These are civil infractions. 

U.S. immigration authorities often use local jail rosters to find information on whether people in jail are violating federal immigration statutes and, therefore, could be eligible for deportation. 

Hutchinson’s directive this past June stated that his office would no longer hold Hennepin County Jail inmates with ICE detainers for extra time after their scheduled release, unless the request came with a judge’s signed warrant. (An ICE detainer is a request from ICE to a local law enforcement agency to hold inmates for additional time, usually 48 hours, after their normal release date. ICE agents then use that time to determine whether to detain the inmate for federal immigration violations.) 

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office also no longer shares with ICE booking information on inmates.

Hutchinson told Sahan Journal that he understands the criticism and acknowledged that his changes in ICE policy “took longer than expected.” But he remains adamant that he met his campaign promises and said he and his staff are proud of their work in this area.

“They’re big changes that help us strengthen our relationship with our immigrant brothers and sisters,” he said. “Were they quick enough? Probably not. But there’s a lot of government bureaucracy behind it as well.”

The starting point of the deportation process

Under Stanek, the Sheriff’s Office followed practices like alerting ICE whenever it booked immigrant inmates to the jail. It would also contact ICE whenever an inmate with an ICE detainer was scheduled to be released.

Hutchinson campaigned largely on changing practice like these and unseated the three-term Stanek in a squeaker, winning by just about 2,000 votes out of more than 500,000 cast. 

Both during his 2018 campaign and today, Hutchinson said these practices actually threaten the overall community’s safety instead of protecting the community. Immigrants who are victims of crimes should be able to call the police without fearing that doing so could get them deported, Hutchinson said. 

“This disconnect between us and ICE is strictly for keeping people—our immigrants, our friends—safe,” Hutchinson told Sahan Journal. 

But public records first obtained by the Decriminalizing Communities Coalition show that between February and August of 2019—the first year of Hutchinson’s term—the Sheriff’s Office shared information with ICE about 711 inmates. The charges listed on the 711 inmates include drug offenses, DWIs, and assaults. Other cases spell out lesser charges like loitering and driving without insurance. The data isn’t specific about the nature of the communications, but Minneapolis immigration attorney Danielle Robinson Briand said that in many cases like these, ICE is making the request to be notified when an inmate with an ICE detainer is scheduled for release from the jail.

Robinson Briand called the detainer “the starting point of the deportation process.”

“Once they determine a person is removable, they will issue that detainer,” she said. “Then, ICE could come and pick the person up on their release date and transfer them to an ICE detainment facility.”

A similar public records request for 2020 data also obtained by the Decriminalizing Communities Coalition shows that for the entire year, ICE submitted 282 detainers and requests for advance notification of release for Hennepin County Jail inmates. The Sheriff’s Office responded to 221 of those requests. Advocates attribute the drop in ICE communications between 2019 and 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic, when jails across the country made efforts to reduce inmate populations to slow the spread of the virus. 

Hutchinson says federal grant forced compliance with ICE

Hutchinson said that his office had no choice but to comply with ICE for the first two years of his term. He also points to less noticed efforts he made to break ties with ICE during that time. Under Stanek, ICE agents kept an office inside the jail that they worked out of; Hutchinson said he kicked them out early in his term. He also said that he posted information on immigrant rights in multiple languages throughout the jail.

Hutchinson maintains that federal grants applied for and accepted by the Hennepin County Commission during 2019 and 2020 contained provisions that compelled his office to work with ICE. 

Specifically, he’s referring to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) programs, which come from the Department of Justice and provide local governments with funding for law enforcement and prosecution. In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote requirements into the JAG program stating that cities and counties accepting the funding must “allow federal immigration access to detention facilities” and provide a 48-hour notice to ICE before releasing an undocumented immigrant “wanted by federal authorities.”

Between 2019 and 2020, Hennepin County accepted just over $1 million from the JAG program, much of which got disbursed down to local governments within the county. Hutchinson said that had he made his directive against ICE earlier, his office would have put this money in jeopardy.

“The City of Minneapolis would have lost a lot of money,” he said. “The county would have as well. If I didn’t follow the protocols, I would be in violation of the grant rules and regulations.”

Hutchinson said he alerted the Hennepin County administration, including the county attorney’s office, about these stipulations “early on” during his term, though he said he could not remember the exact date. 

But during a commission meeting this past July, after Hutchinson spoke about his changes in ICE policy, two commissioners—Irene Fernando and Angela Conley—said they were previously unaware of the stipulations of the JAG funding when they voted to accept the funding. 

Hutchinson told Sahan Journal that the commission should have known about the stipulations before voting to accept the JAG funding. “If they weren’t aware, they should have been, because they’re the ones signing it,” he said. 

Fernando declined to comment specifically on the JAG funding restrictions.

“Commissioner Fernando opposes collaboration with ICE, and is ready to partner with the Sheriff and community organizations on any action that protects immigrants,” said Akhi Menawat, a spokesperson and policy aide for Fernando.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration dropped the ICE requirements as a stipulation for accepting the JAG funding. 

Both Robinson Briand, the immigration attorney, and Romero, the community minister, said Hutchinson and the county commission bear responsibility for the confusion.

“When you want somebody to know something, you communicate as directly as possible,” Robinson Briand said of Hutchinson.

Romero added: “The board should have known what the obligations were for the money they were applying for.”

Another criticism from Robinson Briand and Romero involves Hutchinson’s continued policy of allowing ICE agents inside the jail to interview inmates on request. It’s something that Hutchinson said he doesn’t have the authority to stop.

Any separate law enforcement agency investigating a crime can request to interview someone in jail, Hutchinson said. But that doesn’t mean the person in jail has to comply. “If the person they want to see is in jail, the person doesn’t have to see them,” he said.

Hutchinson said he thinks the most important thing to remember in all of this is the policy changes. “I want people to know that we’ve been working on this for a long time,” he said.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...