This article is part of Prism’s Election 2020: What’s at Stake coverage. 

President Donald Trump has spent his time in office wielding immigration policy and further weaponizing federal agencies for the express purpose of brutalizing immigrant communities. His administration has banned travel from African and Muslim-majority countries, separated thousands of migrant families with no concern for the age of the children, effectively eliminated asylum, cut the refugee cap to the lowest level ever, further militarized the southern border, funneling billions of dollars into Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “bloated border regime,” and drastically expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) powers, increasing immigrant detention to historic highs while also fast-tracking deportations. Immigrant communities and their allies have fought these attacks tooth and nail, but the deportation machine grinds on. 

While the outcome of the presidential race is of grave importance to immigrant communities—including a Biden administration, which would have a lot to answer for—state and local elections also have a key role to play not only in chipping away at federal immigration agencies’ powers, but also in implementing changes that help support immigrant community members. Sheriffs races in particular are of crucial importance because of the unique power sheriffs wield to unilaterally decide what and who they police. 

The history of sheriffs in the United States is deeply racist. During Reconstruction, for example, local sheriffs functioned in a way that was similar to earlier “slave patrols.” These dynamics continue. In June, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report about America’s sheriffs called “Confronting the Demographics of Power,” highlighting the “apartheid-level demographics” of the nation’s 3,000 elected county sheriffs spanning 46 states. Most run unopposed. Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, told Prism the role of sheriffs in the United States today is still very closely tied to “social control and control of communities of color.”

Ninety percent of sheriffs are white men and they have tremendous power and oversight in their jurisdictions. Waves of sheriffs nationwide are helping to support and expand “systems of racialized social control and expulsion,” Political Research Associates’ Cloee Cooper wrote as part of a recent project that maps that county sheriffs aligning with far right and anti-immigrant movements. 

Of note for immigrant communities: Jails are where “crimmigation”—the intersection of criminal law and immigration law—is most likely to take place. When an immigrant is arrested even for a low-level offense, ICE can issue a detainer, an unconstitutional request for the jail to hold an immigrant beyond the time they are eligible for release from custody, giving ICE time to go to the jail and take custody of the person. Sheriffs play a key role in the crimmigration system because they run jails, and they also have sole discretion over whether their county joins the 287(g) program, which effectively deputizes local law enforcement officials to carry out immigration enforcement. 

There are nine crucial sheriffs races this election, which means immigration policy is on the ballot and in the hands of the voters. This includes races in: 

Some of these areas may sound familiar—that’s because sheriffs in these jurisdictions have made national headlines for the unprecedented ways in which they targeted immigrant communities. 

Joe Arpaio was Maricopa County’s notoriously racist sheriff who “terrorized communities of color” from 1993 to 2017. He was convicted of misdemeanor contempt of court for failing to comply with a federal court order intended to stop him and the sheriff’s office from racial profiling Latinx people they suspected of being undocumented. While Arpaio was ousted in November 2016 by Democrat Paul Penzone, Arpaio’s former lieutenant Jerry Sheridan is currently running against Penzone. Sheridan has the ability to carry on Arpaio’s anti-immigrant legacy if elected in November, The Appeal reported.  

The sheriffs up for reelection in these nine jurisdictions have a history of working closely with ICE. If enough voters cast their ballot against them, it could lead to the termination of their jurisdiction’s 287(g) contract and end the practice of honoring ICE detainer requests in the area. It’s also important to note that there are concrete examples of communities effectively organizing against sheriffs, but it often comes with backlash. 

In North Carolina, the organizations Comunidad Colectiva, Action NC, El Pueblo, and Siembra NC mobilized local communities around sheriffs races in 2018 and that year, North Carolineans elected a wave of Black Democrat sheriffs who largely campaigned on their commitment to cut ties with ICE. ICE carried out large-scale enforcement actions in these jurisdictions and eventually the Republicans who run the state legislature passed a bill requiring sheriffs to collaborate with ICE, which was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper is up for reelection against Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, and if Forest wins, it would present the opportunity to revisit the bill and further embolden anti-immigrant sheriffs in the state, according to The Appeal.

Given that sheriffs also oversee residential evictions and traffic stops—precarious scenarios for undocumented immigrants—it’s clear these law enforcement officials have incredible power over vulnerable community members. More often than not, sheriffs choose to funnel immigrants into ICE custody, so these nine sheriffs races are of critical importance to undocumented immigrants who are unable to vote in the elections that affect their lives. 

Prism is covering what’s at stake in the 2020 elections on the issues that matter most to our communities, including electoral justice, environmental justice, criminal justice, racial justice, gender justice, and workers’ rights. Dive into the rest of our coverage here

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.