Leger evolves

by Christiaan Mader

In a break from his oft-repeated campaign promises, Leger says in the final sheriff's forum that he would not honor ICE detainer requests — a shift that undermines his previous criticisms of the current administration.

Mark Garber and Chad Leger speaking at the Acadiana Press Club

Photo by Robin May

To borrow a bygone epithet of electoral politics, sheriff candidate Chad Leger’s attitude toward Lafayette's so-called "sanctuary city" issue is evolving. To be sure, he’s holding fast to his opinion that Lafayette is a "sanctuary city," but he reversed or at least substantially tweaked — if tweaks can be substantial — his policy position in the final sheriff's race forum on Nov. 9.

Responding to a question examining how the candidates would shield parish taxpayers from civil litigation should the sheriff’s office detain an inmate for longer than a judicially required sentence, Leger admitted that he wouldn’t want to put the parish in a bad spot. Effectively, he said that he would not honor detainer requests that required an LPCC inmate, suspected to be in the country illegally, be kept in custody past his release date, but would work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify undocumented migrants and notify the federal agency of that inmate's imminent release.

That’s a sensible plan. So sensible, in fact, it’s been the sheriff's policy all along.

That’s the very policy that landed Lafayette Parish on the "sanctuary city" list posted earlier this fall by anti-immigration think-tank Center for Immigration Studies. Not long after City Marshal Brian Pope introduced the topic into the campaign via his public defense of this nutty press conference, Leger’s social media account began hammering LPSO on the issue, parroting CIS’s designation and promising to reverse the "dangerous policy" introduced by LPSO to avoid litigation. Check below for some screen grabs of greatest hits from his Facebook account

Status from Oct. 14
Chad Leger for Sheriff Facebook Page
Status from Oct. 19
Chad Leger for Sheriff Facebook page
Status from Oct. 21
Chad Leger for Sheriff Facebook page

Leger’s come to Jesus moment in some sense should be applauded. It’s the sensible way to handle a very complex problem, and he displayed an understanding of the deep fiscal ramifications that the city could face if he reversed Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s current policy. But that undermines Leger’s argument that Lafayette is a ‘sanctuary city.’ Indeed, should he follow through with what he said in the forum, CIS would likely not take LPSO off that list.

That designation was based on an LPSO policy letter submitted to ICE in 2014, informing the feds that the sheriff’s office would not honor detainer requests without probable cause. I spoke with Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies right as this thing hit plaid speed, and she explicitly told me that her organization slapped Lafayette with the ‘sanctuary city’ label precisely because of that letter. She even shared with me this document indicating that to be the reason.

Internal ICE document that landed Lafayette on CIS 'sanctuary city' list
Center for Immigration Studies

The CIS has raised a big stink about this nationally. Theirs is the same information that Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy have used to support their anti-immigration position, all while fanning nativist flames by waving reminders of Kathryn Steinle's murder in San Francisco by a five-time deported Mexican national.

That letter and indicated policy would have left Lafayette Parish subject to the penalties proposed by Vitter in his bill that failed congressional passage this month seeking to withhold federal funds from non-compliant jurisdictions. And yet, Leger invoked the twin Republican senators as ad hominem evidence of his claim, even though as sheriff he would maintain the same policies he's criticized and have put Lafayette Parish in Vitter's aim.

Leger then attempted to couch his opinion in a distinction between detainer "requests" and detainer "orders."

I spoke with ICE Public Relations Officer Bryan Cox who informed me that ICE issues exactly zero orders. All forms issued to local jurisdictions are requests, be they I247N notification requests or I247D detainer requests. If he's referring to judicial orders, that's already part of the current policy.

LPCC Director Rob Reardon corroborated that characterization, claiming to have never received a detainer order, but noting he would hypothetically comply with one should such such a thing materialize.

Before and since that letter was issued, LPSO has worked with ICE via a notification process. It's common practice for LPSO — really LPCC — to notify ICE that individuals that immigration enforcement seeks are in Lafayette's jail. Leger promised to continue that policy, which has kept LPSO in compliance with ICE operations.

Obviously, this all very confusing. Cox admitted to me over the phone that immigration policy is extraordinarily complex, and that he’s reluctant to use superlatives like "always" and "never" when dealing with immigration enforcement procedures. There’s always an exception lurking. But that's the problem with putting weakly vetted policy wonk on your boiler-plate: it forces you to back down from previous stands and face the murkiness of reality.

The relationship between local law enforcement and the federal agencies responsible for securing borders and enforcing immigration policy has been vastly misunderstood. Previous policy dictated by the federal Secure Communities program put many jurisdictions in jeopardy of civil litigation, with courts of appeal holding that the local jurisdictions are liable in the event they comply with a detainer request and such compliance violates someone's Fourth Amendment rights.

It was precisely that policy that LPSO addressed in the letter that garnered the "sanctuary city" epithet from CIS. But in 2015, Secure Communities was replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program, which developed the two forms mentioned above to corral prodigal jurisdictions into assisting the pursuit of criminal immigrants.

LPSO is currently in full compliance with PEP. Its policy before the creation of that program would have similarly been in compliance. And Chad Leger, it would seem, would do nothing to change that.

CIS is not likely to reverse its designation, but that's its prerogative. It's not a federal agency. It's a think-tank with the motto "Pro Immigrant. Low Immigration."

But Leger's evolution didn’t stop at the detainer issue. He regaled the SLCC auditorium with the story of a woman in Scott whose property had been so damaged by marauding "illegals" that she was in danger of losing her homeowners insurance. Surely, this demonstrated Lafayette’s status as "sanctuary city" — at least that was the implication.

There are a couple of problems with that narrative, most notably Leger’s indications that he would continue issuing misdemeanor summonses rather than making misdemeanor bookings, to keep the jail population down.

Being that local law enforcement agencies do not have the means by which to process an individual’s immigration status at booking, Leger’s own proposed policy would continue to put them back on the streets, to borrow his term. Unless Leger intends to hold suspected undocumented immigrants without cause, a potentially unconstitutional use of force that he now does not support, he has no way of promising that he’ll clean up the immigration problem as he sees it.

Beyond misdemeanor summonses, undocumented migrants who commit felonies are prosecuted in the jurisdictions in which they violate the law. Leger has maintained that LPSO’s policy is putting violent criminals back on the streets, and that’s simply not true. Violent criminals are processed and sentenced without respect to immigration status. Once in the system, ICE can then retrieve them for civil immigration proceedings which, surprise surprise, often afford the suspect the opportunity to bond out, and in some cases determine no illegal entry.

You can have a problem with federal immigration policy, as Leger clearly does. But both he and Mark Garber said at the forum last night that Lafayette Parish taxpayers should not be held liable for the federal government’s enforcement problems.

To recap, Leger still maintains that Lafayette is a "sanctuary city," but he’s now rejected the very reason that term was introduced in the first place. The designation was a reflection of LPSO’s current communication and coordination with ICE, and Leger intimated that he would uphold the status quo — notifying ICE 48 hours before suspected undocumented migrants are released and not honoring blanket detainer requests.

Perhaps Leger caught up with current police methodology. Perhaps he had a change of heart. Whatever it is, he changed his mind on how he would address a problem he’s made a focal point of his campaign. Ironically, changing his mind on the solution seems to indicate that there’s no problem. Which we’ve been saying all along.