Federal Immigration and Intimidation

By on May 2, 2018

ICE visit highlights change in protocol and a community mired in confusion

One year ago in Cheyenne, protesters marched on May Day, an international day honoring workers. They delivered a letter to Gov. Matt Mead asking him to protect immigrants in Wyoming. (Sarah Ross)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials rolled into town in unmarked cars on April 25 and 26 and arrested two Teton Heritage Landscaping workers in Wilson. According to immigration attorney Elisabeth Trefonas, those arrestees were taken to a Rexburg, Idaho, facility. Teton County Jail Sgt. Troy Sutton said that four other individuals spent the night in Jackson’s jail.

However, ICE’s murky protocol means there is no way to know how many people may have been detained that were not processed through the jail.

The Local-Federal Chasm

The recent arrests are some of the first since October 1, when ICE started targeting people based solely on immigration status. Previously, they claimed to focus only on high level criminals.

That claim is dubious.

In April 2017, Planet Jackson Hole reported that between 2002 and 2015, 40 percent of ICE arrestees in Teton County had no criminal conviction. Of those with convictions, 72 percent were misdemeanors. 

Still, the change in policy sets a new precedent. ICE’s declaration triggered a change in local law enforcement protocol. Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen previously worked with ICE, holding arrestees on 48-hour detainer holds, at Teton County taxpayers’ expense, with the understanding that those being held were high-level criminals.

After October 1, Whalen joined authorities across the country in calling the detainers unconstitutional. He said he would no longer cooperate with those detainers issued in Teton County.

However, according to Trefonas, that does not mean that ICE can’t use the jail. It’s a confusing distinction.

“They’re being held in the facility by ICE, but not held on behalf of ICE,” she explained. “The sheriff wasn’t holding them, ICE was.”

The feds essentially rent the space for the night, without cooperation or oversight from local authorities and theoretically, without taxpayer money.

This is ICE’s second visit since the policy change, and Trefonas has already noticed shifts. Previously, “it seemed like there was a good working relationship between the sheriff and ICE. That’s what both sides were reporting. Gradually, that seems to have changed.”

In the past, ICE would typically alert local law enforcement to their activities, if not to their specific location or targets, so that officers were prepared for questions from community members.

But during last week’s visit, for instance, Whalen was out of town for a training, along with much of the sheriff’s office and the Jackson Hole Police Department.

Sgt. Chett Hooper was the patrol officer when ICE arrived. He had no idea they were in town until their second day, after they’d arrested people, and a concerned community member called. “I don’t know if they held them in our jail,” Hooper said, “or if we were involved in the jail at all. I have no idea. I haven’t seen the charges on any of [the arrestees] … I don’t know what the warrants were for.”

Rising Risks

The recent arrests highlight the unique and vulnerable position of immigrants in Teton County.

ICE travels from Casper, and takes detainees to Aurora, Colorado. Their operations in Jackson happen quickly, without notification, and when they leave, they cross state lines. “The lack of notice feels so drastic because of how rural we are and the amount of space the feds are trying to cover,” Trefonas said.

Technically, immigration arrests are administrative rather than criminal, but it doesn’t feel that way “when you’re the person in handcuffs getting dragged across the state” faced with appearing before immigration court in another state.

The rapidity of arrests and the distance they travel also makes it difficult for advocates and family members to help. When an arrestee leaves Teton County, it becomes virtually impossible for a non-attorney to track them.

For example, Trac Immigration, a nonpartisan tool out of Syracuse University that logs every detainer, arrest, and deportation issued by ICE, does not have information on deportations from Wyoming since those arrestees are actually deported from Colorado. Their statistics on deportations out of Colorado do not differentiate between Coloradan residents or those from other states.


“Our people are just disappearing,” she said,

and the rest “are living here in fear.”


Trac Immigration does have information about detainers issued in Wyoming, but ICE has made it difficult to track those, too. When PJH reported about immigration last April, Trac Immigration had information about the criminal charges of each Teton County arrestee. Now, the data shows that 27 detainer requests were issued in the fiscal year 2017, but ICE is “now withholding” the charges against these individuals.

Now that the sheriff will not cooperate with detainer requests, it is unclear whether Trac Immigration will have data about ICE’s operations in Teton County.

In addition, now that they have to pay for space, ICE may be less likely to use Teton County Jail, which means that arrestees will not appear on the inmate list. The list is one of the ways that the immigrant community is alerted to ICE’s presence in town.

As ICE expands its reach and becomes less trackable, Trefonas and her team are working to ensure that immigrants are prepared for the inevitable next visit. Every time ICE comes to town, Trefonas is bombarded with calls and emails. She’s arrived at work to find people waiting in the office because they can’t be detained there. “Immigration doesn’t have a search warrant for our office,” she explained.

Trefonas emphasized that immigrants do not have to speak to ICE. She tells people to say “no.” Recently, ICE was waiting outside of the courthouse at a time when they knew an individual would be walking out. A young man was walking to his father’s car when ICE stopped him and asked him for his name. He gave it to them.

He was then arrested on immigration charges.

ICE officers approached the father’s car and asked him to roll down his window. He refused. They said they would smash the window and drag him out if he didn’t. He rolled it down a crack, but did not give his name or answer their relentless questions. Finally, ICE officers told him to “just get out of here.”

But for many, it is difficult to keep composure in the face of tactics that are legal but coercive—ICE officials are permitted to intimidate, bluff, and lie.

Ali, a Jackson resident who did not provide her real name due to her proximity to a pending immigration case, says she’s heard of ICE using fake warrants in town. She is American-born but is related by marriage to an immigrant family that has been here for three decades. Two of her family members are currently facing deportation. They have American-born children in the school system. Ali said that “until it impacted me, hit so close to home,” she didn’t realize how bad it was.

“Our people are just disappearing,” she said, and the rest “are living here in fear.” She’s heard that people feel they have to be in hiding, they’ve stopped going to the doctor, are afraid to claim workers compensation, afraid to get help. People are being “plucked” from the community with no follow-up.

It’s difficult, she said, because these stories need to be “blown up” in order to raise awareness, but it’s too dangerous right now. Trefonas confirmed this fear.

“ICE is very much reading the paper,” she said. They’re checking Facebook, they’re tracking targets online. She encouraged immigrants to be careful.

If your employer wants to put your picture in the paper, maybe tell them you don’t want them to, she said.

“We don’t want to scare people,” Ali said. “But we also need to be fair and say it may not be safe here right now. We need to make our community a less easy target.”


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