Published Wednesday, July 12, 2017 | 9:55 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, July 12, 2017 | 1:31 p.m.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he’s not so sure Clark County can be described as a sanctuary jurisdiction, though his office has yet to make a final determination.
Sessions was in Las Vegas this morning to speak with law enforcement officials about curbing violent crime and illegal immigration. The federal government has been looking at 10 communities that may lose funding if they do not cooperate with federal immigration policies.
Sessions said today he’s not sure Las Vegas fits that description. He said he’d spoken with Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, whose agency is enrolled in the 287 (g) Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that gives the deputies the ability to enforce immigration law. The program has been criticized by opponents who say it leads to racial profiling.
“This is just the type of force multiplier that we need,” Sessions said. “There’s a list prepared before I became Attorney General of cities and areas that are sanctuary cities and not in compliance. Las Vegas was one of the cities that were mentioned. I’ll just say that we’re reviewing that. I’m not sure that was accurate, and we’re going to get on that quickly.”
A May 2016 Department of Justice Inspector General’s memo listed Clark County among 10 jurisdictions that would be investigated to determine compliance with federal immigration policy. Clark County has maintained it is not a sanctuary jurisdiction.
Sessions said his office is focused on combating the dangers of transnational organizations such as MS-13, which reaches to El Salvador, as well as the Bloods and outlaw motorcycle clubs.
“Too many jurisdictions still refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities regarding illegal aliens who commit crimes — even MS-13 gang members,” Sessions said. “These jurisdictions are protecting criminals that under the law should be deported. They’re not protecting law-abiding residents.”
In addition to Clark County, Connecticut; California; Chicago; Cook County, Ill.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Milwaukee County, Wis.; Orleans Parish, La.; New York City; and Philadelphia were chosen for review from a list of more than 140 local and state jurisdictions.
Sessions said he’s directed federal prosecutors to make criminal immigration enforcement a priority and appoint a border security coordinator in each U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Through these initiatives, we’re going to remove dangerous criminals from our neighborhoods and dismantle, wherever we possibly can, transnational cartels, drug traffickers, gangs and human transporters that peddle poison in our community,” he said.
State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, said in a statement that Sessions supports divisive policies that demonize immigrant families and will harm rather than improve safety in Nevada. Cancela sponsored a failed bill in the 2017 Legislature that would have made Nevada a sanctuary state.
“We don’t need the federal government telling us how to make Nevada safe,” Cancela said. “Local law enforcement has done tremendous work to truly understand the state’s needs.”
Sessions said Las Vegas has seen an increase in gangs and the violence that goes with them.
“To take these gangs off of our streets, we need cooperation between law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels,” he said. “ I understand that we have a good measure of that cooperation right here in Las Vegas.”
Sessions said criminals take note when cities such as San Francisco announce they are sanctuary jurisdictions. He said the message of the presidential election was clear that people want a lawful immigration system that protects public safety.
In Nevada, he said, 55 of 61 foreign nationals arrested by ICE in March had criminal histories.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, we are finally getting serious about securing our border,” he said. “This is a matter of national importance. In fact, we are already seeing positive results, with illegal border crossings falling to their lowest monthly figure in 17 years.”
Local officials maintain that Metro Police are in full compliance with the federal government.
The agency’s efforts are focused on when a person is booked at the Clark County Detention Center. When a person is arrested, they’re interviewed and their custody record is vetted. If they’re taken in on a violent criminal act or have previous deportations, Metro places a detainer on them for federal authorities.
“We don’t go out looking for anybody who’s an illegal immigrant or anything, that’s why we run a jail-based program,” said Richard Suey, Metro deputy chief.
Since Jan. 3, more than 3,000 immigration-status interviews have been conducted, 694 detainers have been placed and 327 people have been picked up by ICE agents. Right now, there are 169 people at the Clark County Detention Center with detainers.
To put those numbers into context, Suey said, about 32,000 people have been booked at the jail this year.
Metro staffs four positions at the Detention Center for officers who have undergone immigration training, Suey said. Recently, seven Metro officers graduated from a federal training academy so those positions can be staffed around the clock.
Regarding Sessions’ remarks on the county’s sanctuary status, Suey said, “It brings me hope because we’ve been running the 287 (g) program since 2008. We’ve committed a lot of resources to it; we’ve maintained it, even when — in my opinion — the feds weren’t too interested in it towards 2014, 2015.”
About previous reports that stated Metro was not complying with ICE, Suey said prior reports that Metro was not cooperating with ICE were inaccurate.
“Our focus is to focus on the worst of the worst — the ones who are violent criminals who are preying on our community,” Suey said.
Sessions said violent crime is on the rise in many parts of the U.S., after decades of decreases. He pointed to a local example — 18-year old Eric Brooks, a recent Spring Mountain High School graduate who was sitting on a park bench when he was fatally shot.
Sessions said law enforcement officials have the responsibility to stop and reverse the past two years of rising violent crime, opioid abuse and human trafficking.
“To that end, I have directed our federal prosecutors to work closely with our law enforcement partners at the federal, state, local and tribal levels to combat violent crime and take violent criminals off our streets,” he said.
Sessions said the goal is also to boost the number of assistant U.S. attorneys by 300. “I believe that’s the point of the spear,” he said.
Sessions said it’s “unbelievable” that in Nevada doctors are writing 94 prescriptions for painkillers per 100 residents, and that it’s probably true elsewhere, too.
He pointed to a recent 10-week trial that ended in the conviction of a doctor and medical assistant who were accused of sending opioids to Las Vegas drug dealers.
“That is exactly what we need to be doing: holding those responsible for their crimes, even when it is difficult,” he said.
He said that, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 80 percent of heroin addicts started on prescription drugs. He called it a shocking number and said doctors need to be urged to be more cautious in the number of pills they prescribe patients.
“I hope that you, as state and local officers, will not take lightly the arrests that you make of people having prescription drugs on them,” Sessions said. “I would say, I would ask, don’t plea bargain with them until they tell you where they got them.”
Las Vegas Sun reporter Ricardo Torres-Cortez contributed to this report.