Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of people are confined within local jails, including those operated at the county level. Jails, which can also be a pipeline to deportation centers, are overseen by some of the most pivotal officials in law enforcement: sheriffs. 

Local sheriffs can have the authority to decide which crimes get investigated, who gets arrested, and how jails are run. Despite the fact that sheriffs are usually elected officials, they often run unopposed, allowing them to remain in their role for years on end. That’s why organizers with Faith in Action are tirelessly working to hold them accountable.

Faith in Action is a national organizing network with the goal of ensuring public officials answer to the people they serve—especially in communities of color. Organizers aim to raise awareness about the issues that feed mass incarceration, and try to make an impact on elections at the state and local level. They also train communities of color about the mechanics of running campaigns.

In 2015, the organization introduced LA RED, a campaign to reduce the amount of money going toward mass detention and deportation. The acronym stands for Liberation, Action, Respect, Equity, and Dignity. Through their voter education work, organizers hope to elect more progressive sheriffs who enforce pro-immigrant policies.

“We are trying everyday to make sure our people are not put into the mass detention and mass deportation machine,” said Richard Morales, the policy and program director for LA RED. “One of the ways we do that is to ensure that we have pro-immigrant sheriffs across the country.”

Organizers with LA RED reach out to vulnerable communities who are being negatively affected by the decisions of their sheriffs. When advocates from Faith in Action go to rural areas to canvass, they take the extra step of ensuring the volunteers are members of the same community—Spanish speakers canvass in Spanish-speaking communities, Black volunteers canvass in Black communities, and so on. Since the elections for county sheriff rarely get media attention, organizers say many citizens don’t realize that sheriffs are elected officials. They hope to educate communities of color on the job of the sheriff, and explain how their decisions can impact the lives of each individual.

Many sheriffs collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which can lead to mass deportations. They have the power to hold immigrants in jail cells past the time they should be released, regardless of the state’s sanctuary status. The extension gives ICE additional time to take immigrants into custody. Sheriffs often profit from ICE for each day they hold undocumented immigrants.

“I think many times we blame the president for all the deportations that are happening, but in reality, none of that would be possible if sheriffs weren’t collaborating with ICE at the local level,” said Nanci Palacios, deputy director of the Faith in Florida Action Fund, an affiliate of Faith in Action. “If sheriffs would stop collaborating, we would cut the amount of deportations happening drastically.”

In 2018, Palacios organized a voter education campaign around the special election sheriff’s race in Hillsborough County, Florida. After the retirement of the county’s longtime sheriff in 2017, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Chad Chronister to lead the office until a special election could be held. During the time leading up to the special election in 2018, Chronister made an appearance at a press conference that encouraged sheriffs’ offices to participate in a pilot program that would allow them to serve federal warrants and detain undocumented people before turning them over to ICE.

Although Chronister didn’t initially confirm his decision to cooperate, his attendance at the press conference, his silence on the issue, and his lack of response to Palacios’ team prompted organizers to get Hillsborough placed on the list of participating counties. Eventually, Chronister quietly decided not to participate, but said his agency would continue to work closely with federal agencies, including ICE.

Though Faith in Florida didn’t endorse a particular candidate in the special election, the team spent time educating voters on how the criminal justice system is run and ways that everyday people can make a difference. Organizers also published score cards for each candidate with ratings on their stances on major issues.

“When we talk to voters about the presidential races or congressional races, to them, it feels like it’s so far away,” Morales said. “But when we talk to them about local races, especially the sheriff races, people get really excited because this is an issue that directly affects them.”

Moving ahead to 2020, Faith in Action hopes to expose more sheriffs who are actively collaborating with ICE, allowing voters to make educated decisions on how they cast their ballots. They also plan to continue educating voters on the elements that are causing systemic issues across the country.

“Anyone who wants to lower incarceration and deportation rates should be looking at sheriff races,” Palacios said. “People who are undocumented can’t vote, but they have loved ones who can. A lot of people are in mixed-status families with people who can vote, and they will vote if they have a reason to vote—especially if it’s a candidate who’s either going to hurt or help out their community or their family.”  

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...