NEW ORLEANS — As the debate over whether migrant children should be taken from their parents at the border came to a head Monday, top Trump administration officials were pleading with law enforcement officers to hop on the anti-immigration train.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were standing before the National Sheriffs’ Association conference here, demanding that peace officers stop listening to the press and start getting stricter on illegal immigration. Hours later, the world would hear an audio recording of separated children screaming and crying for their parents at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
Nielsen was fired up about asylum seekers and recent press coverage over her tweets on Sunday, in which she said of the administration’s policy of separating families at the border: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” In front of a crowd of mostly local law enforcement officials on Monday morning, she stuck by her tweets, raising the specter of human traffickers using children and policy loopholes to “get out of jail free.”
“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family,” she said. “We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job.” (Two California Democrats, Sen. Kamala Harris and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, later called on Nielsen to resign.)
The Trump administration was trying to shore up support among sheriffs for hard-edged immigration enforcement. It has long been part of the president’s plan to woo those elected law enforcement officials who back his immigration policy. Early last year, he invited a group of nearly a dozen sheriffs who agreed with his various immigration orders, the most divisive of which was his executive order punishing so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities asking for local jurisdictions to hand over their incarcerated undocumented immigrants.
HuffPost spoke to deputies, investigators and sheriffs at the convention, some of whom wanted nothing to do with any conversation about immigration. Those who were already close to the Trump administration were willing to trumpet Sessions and his immigration policy, while others said they were just doing their jobs.
Keith Cain, sheriff of Daviess County, Kentucky, said he and Sessions “don’t agree on everything,” but he called the attorney general a “significant partner.” Cain, who was one of 380 sheriffs to sign a letter urging Congress to move forward on a Mexico border wall plan, also accepted the NSA’s Sheriff of the Year award that morning.
“Look, we’re in the people-helping business. We want to do what’s right,” Cain said. “Sometimes you have to take a very firm position on very controversial issues. It’s like that old country song: If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
In interviews with HuffPost, sheriffs from Texas and Kansas emphasized that their big issue is narcotics, a sentiment shared by at least a dozen law enforcement personnel we spoke to.
“Transnational cartels are shipping this stuff in at absolutely historic rates,” said Kelly Rowe, sheriff of Lubbock County, Texas. “I had a brand new K-9 officer recently hit on 40 pounds of marijuana in a vehicle. Simultaneously, another officer hits on 10 pounds of heroin in another vehicle. We’re back to the late ’70s and ’80s in terms of the amount of narcotics people are bringing in.”
Their business isn’t necessarily in outing undocumented immigrants to the feds. But some sheriffs who spoke to HuffPost were quick to note they are cooperating fully with federal authorities. Rowe subscribes to a sort of authoritarian’s idea of intersectionality: Immigration policy and drug policy, he said, go hand in hand.
“You don’t have one problem without the other. Not to delve off into the immigration debate ― that’s one thing ― but from our perspective, having our border secure and being able to slow and impede these cartels is big,” he said. “We’re not here to be immigration enforcement people. We utilize ICE and Border Patrol to do their part when that stuff comes up, but those lines get blurred really quickly.”
Over in Kansas, Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pianalto is also more concerned with drug abuse issues in his community than in joining a debate on immigration.
“Certainly, immigration is a part of this because immigrants are often used by criminals to get drugs in ― they become mules,” he said. “If they want the laws changed about how we enforce, the citizens can help make that change. I enforce the laws. The only people that can change it are the voters and the legislators.”