An immigration program that is widely controversial due to some racial-profiling lawsuits its caused in other parts of the country is now implemented in Nebraska for the first time.
Dakota County in northeast Nebraska, nearly 100 miles north of Omaha, has an estimated population of 20,465 as of 2016. It's a tri-state area that has become a hub for Hispanics, making it a majority-minority county as more than 50 percent of its population is Hispanic.
The large volume of immigrants causes some problems with identity theft and immigration law violations, according to Sheriff Chris Kleinberg of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.
Kleinberg says his jail routinely houses inmates who are in the country illegally or under Immigration, and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers cost him around $70 a day per inmate.
"Because we deal with the packing plants out here, we deal with a lot of people that are stealing identities. Now, when you hear identity theft, you automatically think people are trying to get into your bank account, but that's not so much what we deal with here," said Kleinberg. "We deal with people that are just taking identities so that they can get jobs."
Kleinberg says 20 years ago, he could look at a driver's license or ID and notice whether the documents were fraudulent. "Boy, it's getting hard now though. Because they're getting good at it."
Last spring, Kleinberg says his chief deputy ran across the 287(g) program online, a program that allows a state or local law enforcement entity to enter a partnership with ICE in order for trained officers to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdiction.
The 287(g) program was implemented in 1996, but was downsized and its funding reduced during the Obama administration after targeting of Hispanics by some police departments increased. This past year under the Trump administration, the number of agencies applying for the program doubled, now with a total of 76 agencies in 20 states — Nebraska is now of them.
"I saw this program was for the jail and thought, this will help train some of our staff on immigration laws, so they know what a work visa is and the difference in documents, and then we can bring that information back to the jails and so my deputies can understand this stuff. That's what started this all," added Kleinberg, who's been the sheriff for the county since 2011 and ran unopposed for another four years in March.
In November 2017, Kleinberg applied for the program on behalf of the county jail, which quickly provoked wide criticism from the community and large immigration advocacy organizations throughout the country.
Cristina Topete, a community organizer for Unity in Action, a nonprofit in South Sioux City said she started getting calls and visits from concerned residents regarding the program, fearing the program would lead to racial profiling, like it did in Maricopa County, Arizona. The Joe Arpaio-run sheriff's office stopped Hispanics without probable cause and faced several lawsuits.
"We've had a lot of people come up to us with worry and fears. I had someone ask me if they were safe to live in their house. If they should move. It's not something I can tell them to move or not to move, but it is concerning to see that people have this fear of staying in this area," Topete said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska and other local organizations from northeast Nebraska, and Omaha and Lincoln began a petition opposing the sheriff's decision to partner with ICE. More than 600 signatures from community members and fifty businesses in the county were collected. ACLU went as far as adding a campaign billboard in the center of South Sioux City, warning residents 287(g) would lead to racial profiling, higher taxes, and mistrust with local law enforcement.
"When there's that avenue, if there's that door, there's always the opportunity for people to bring out their prejudices out to the community," said Topete.
ICE approved Kleinberg's application and the county and ICE signed the MOA in January.
Dakota County is officially a 287(g) jurisdiction but won't be fully implemented until after August when two deputies attend a four-week course. In the meantime, ICE has installed phone lines and cables so that ICE can set up two fingerprint identification databases that trained deputies can use to identify individuals.
Rose Godinez with ACLU of Nebraska argues the program will come at a higher cost for taxpayers.
"In the research it shows that many counties that have had this [program] has cost them millions of dollars more than it's brought in so many counties have pulled out of this agreement because of the cost" said Godinez. "ACLU is concerned with how this will affect the pockets of taxpayers. That can occur - that's occurred in other 287g jurisdictions in the United States who have terminated or withdrawn their application due to the significant cost. And these counties, keep in mine are much larger than Dakota County and no not carry the same budget that Dakota County would."
Kleimberg says his county is broke and can't afford new uniforms or offer raises to his staff. He says if the program cost him any money, he would've never applied.
"With the money crunch, everyone says, well Sheriff, you're just doing this because you think you're going to make money off of it and no, I'm trying to save money. Last time we looked it was around 15% of unnaturalized inmates in my jail. In my budget, at $1.3 million, that's a big chunk of money. That's a couple deputies, that's a couple jailers." said Kleinberg. "That's what I told the representatives from Minneapolis when they came. But there's no cost."
The county's MOA with ICE says the county is responsible for 'personnel expenses, including but not limited to, salaries and benefits, local transportation, and official issue material.' Kleinberg says those costs will already be part of the deputies' salaries. The agreement also says 'subject to availability of funds, ICE will be responsible for the purchase, installation, and maintenance' to the databases.
"But they don't pick up the entire tab," Godinez said. "There are jurisdictions that ask for reimbursement. The Dakota County will front the cost and then will ask for reimbursement from Homeland Security but that reimbursement in other jurisdictions have not always been fulfilled."
3 News Now reached out to other counties in Texas and North Carolina who opted out of the 287(g) program due to high costs. A spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff's Department in Texas, who opted out of the program after a year due to a $675,000 dollar cost to taxpayers said the program had no extra cost and the money they paid was strictly for 10 full-time 287(g) officers' salaries.
But even if there were to be any costs to the program, Kleinberg says there are some people in the county who would help finance it.
"I've had a couple larger business owners in the community who offered to help. They've said, 'if there's any cost to this, tell us. We'll take care of it,' " Kleinberg said. "But I always tell them they're already paying for it, so why pay for it twice. And it's not costing me anything."
Kleinberg regrets the fear it's caused the community, but stands firm that this move will help save the county money and filter out immigrants breaking the law in the area.
"This has nothing to do with anybody's race or whether I'm racist or not," Kleinberg said. "This has to do with, follow our laws in immigration, follow our local laws, and be a part of America. That's all I'm asking."