Despite publicly distancing itself from aggressive immigration enforcement, the county has received a lot of federal money for law enforcement to inform on undocumented people.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, particularly in the debates on law enforcement in so-called “sanctuary cities” and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) and Madison Police Department distanced themselves publicly from the administration’s push to deputize local law enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants on ICE’s behalf.
While such statements were technically true, they did not fully convey the relationship between the county, the DCSO, and ICE. An August 2022 report from the ACLU of Wisconsin showed that while some sheriff’s offices in the state went to extreme lengths to collaborate with ICE (Walworth and Clark counties’ sheriff’s offices sent daily reports to ICE officers on the immigration status of detainees), Dane County received the most funding from ICE for sharing information on detainee’s immigration status. From 2016 to 2020, the county received $634,000 through the Justice Department’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP).
“Dane County, in terms of the amount of money it was receiving, seems to be one of the most aggressive counties [in Wisconsin] in terms of pursuing that money,” says Tim Muth, staff attorney with the ACLU.
Under the new leadership of Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, the practice has changed, but it still continues.
A mixed message on immigration enforcement
After meeting with former President Donald Trump in 2018, former Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney told The Progressive Magazine that he voiced opposition to Trump’s prioritization of immigration enforcement and the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“A better means to address immigration is to find an expedited means to citizenship,” Mahoney told The Progressive‘s Bill Lueders. The article went on to say that “The Dane County Sheriffs’ Office, under his watch, does not detain inmates with questionable immigration status past their legal release dates, as federal officials would like. But it does sometimes assist Border Patrol and immigration agents when they conduct ‘lawful actions’ in Dane County.”
While technically true, this does not tell the full story of DCSO’s relationship with ICE under Mahoney’s leadership. DCSO has not and does not participate in 287(g), a program that deputized local law enforcement to inquire about immigration status and hold undocumented persons in detention on behalf of ICE. But DCSO has shared and continues to share information with ICE on undocumented persons in custody under SCAAP since at least the year 2000 (the program launched in 1994).
Under Mahoney, who was first elected as sheriff in 2006 and held that role for 15 years, the policy was to share that information with ICE when an undocumented person was detained, regardless of whether they’d been convicted or had an opportunity to stand trial. In exchange, SCAAP partially reimbursed the county for the cost of those individuals’ incarceration. In 2016, the county received $69,760 from the program; in 2019 it received $155,160, the most the county received during that period.
During that same time period, Walworth County, which has a much smaller immigrant population than Dane, received the second-highest amount of SCAAP funding and had double its number of requests from ICE to hold someone in detention until ICE could take them into custody. By contrast, after years of legal battles with the ACLU and Voces De La Frontera, Milwaukee County reduced the information it shared with ICE. As a result, Milwaukee County hasn’t received SCAAP funding since 2017.
“In my mind, Walworth County is definitely more problematic than Dane,” Muth says. “But Dane County, given its reputation and holding itself up as a more liberal, progressive, immigrant-friendly county, the SCAAP funding still seems to generate different results than, say, what we see in in Milwaukee County.”
Dane County had received pushback on the practice in the past. In 2008, local defense attorneys publicly stated that many of their clients were choosing to take minor cases to court instead of entering plea bargains. They were trying to avoid detention in the Dane County Jail, knowing they would be reported to ICE and potentially face deportation. That year, the Madison Common Council passed a resolution that asked DCSO to stop reporting non-citizen inmates to ICE unless they were convicted of a felony, but Mahoney said that was “impractical.”
Mahoney resigned in January 2021, and Barrett was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to step into the role in May 2021. A few months later, DCSO changed its policy so it would not report all non-U.S. citizens in its custody, but it does share information on individuals who have been tried and convicted.
“We applaud Sheriff Barrett for having eliminated the policy of notifying ICE upon anybody being booked who is an undocumented person,” Muth says. “That’s a really important change. It may result in the county receiving less SCAAP money going forward.”
At the time when the ACLU’s report was published, the amount of SCAAP money local law enforcement agencies received for fiscal year 2021 had not been reported, but DCSO spokesperson Elise Schaffer informed Tone Madison via email that it was $86,817. Schaffer also confirmed that the funds went into the county’s general fund. Tone Madison also asked Schaffer whether DCSO currently reports all convicted noncitizens to ICE, including those convicted of misdemeanors, but she did not directly address the question.
Muth points out that ICE can start deportation proceedings for even misdemeanors.
“It can be for as little as two misdemeanors, which can be anything from disorderly conduct, or misdemeanor drug possession, or any number of things. It doesn’t have to be for any particularly serious crime,” Muth says. “You are notifying ICE that somebody has two misdemeanors, two convictions, and they’re undocumented.”
Barrett defended the office’s current practice in an interview with Channel 3000 shortly after the ACLU’s report was released, arguing the information is sent after the person has been released. But Muth says that distinction is meaningless.
“What you are affirmatively telling ICE is, ‘Here’s a list of people who are undocumented and have been convicted of crimes in my jurisdiction.’ And that’s essentially the first step for letting ICE deport people on the grounds of having some criminal record,” Muth says. “Those SCAAP applications each year are giving ICE a list of undocumented persons who ICE may not have been aware of before and who have the potential for being deported and removed, separated from their families.”
In October, the county approved renewing its relationship with Justice Benefits Inc. (JBI), which handles billing and reception of ICE funds for the county, for another year. JBI receives 22% of all SCAAP funding awarded to the county.
“It’s our call to eliminate applying for SCAAP funding, because it is affirmatively fueling the ICE information database on undocumented persons in our communities, who are potentially subject to immigration enforcement,” Muth says.
Tone Madison also contacted Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Dane County Communications Director Ariana Vruwink for this story, but did not receive a response from either.