CASPER, Wyo – When it comes to deportation efforts in Wyoming, all roads lead to Natrona County.
“Immigration hold” bookings on the sheriff’s office active housed inmates logs have been steadily rising over the past few years, increasing 289 percent from 2015 to 2018.
Any person arrested in Wyoming with an “immigration hold” are usually transferred to the Natrona County Detention Center in Casper, according to ICE Public Affairs Specialist Alethea Smock of USICE in Denver.
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“The detention center there is under an Intergovernmental Service Agreement with ICE, meaning that if we arrest someone in Wyoming, we can transfer them there to hold them until we can move them to an ICE facility,” Smock said.
Records obtained by Oil City News using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), show the number of immigration holds booked into the Natrona County Detention Center totaled just 27 in 2015. That number increased to 44 in 2016 and then nearly doubled to 83 in 2017. The number topped out at 105 in 2018.
There have been 45 through April of this year.
Why the majority of the state’s immigration holds end up in Natrona County, at least temporarily, is a matter of logistics. With ICE agents based in Casper, it makes the most sense to bring all deportees here on their way through the system, said Natrona County Detention Center operations manager Lt. Gordon Clapp.
“They move a lot of people through,” said Clapp. “Usually they’re moving people through us a couple times a week and we could have five or six for a day, or just one.”
The detention center then bills ICE for each inmate.
“We don’t house them for free. It’s expensive housing people with labor and everything else,” said Lt. Clapp.
Elisabeth Trefonas in Jackson has been practicing immigration law with the Trefonas Law firm since the mid-2000s. Hers is one of only three firms specializing in immigration law in Wyoming.
Jackson Hole, with its reliance on seasonal work, has been a magnet for immigrants for decades.
“We are not a sanctuary city but I think we’ve been pigeonholed as that, so ICE has concentrated a lot here,” said Trefonas.
“We’ve seen a tremendous uptick in enforcement, and really it goes back to the changes in the law and some executive orders.”
Trefonas says there are basically four tiered categories in deportation law. The top deal with terrorism and violent crimes, while the bottom address undocumented status.
She said deportation efforts increased for violent criminal and terrorist suspects under the Obama administration, but enforcement efforts have had a much broader reach under the Trump administration after an executive order in January, 2017.
Since then, ICE agents have made Jackson a regular destination.
“Last year we saw ICE standing in front of our courthouse all the time,” she said.
Agents can’t enter churches or schools, but they can stand in front of the courthouse and send “invitation letters” asking people to show up at their office.
“These are not a court order for you to appear anywhere, but it looks very official,” she said.
Trafonas says people picked up by ICE are taken to the Natrona County Detention Center, where they are held up to two days, the maximum amount of time a person can be held without being charged with a crime.
Trefonas says under ICE’s discretion they can issue a bond in which the person is released if they can pay.
If ICE declines to issue a bond for whatever reason, or if a person can’t afford it, they are then moved to an ICE holding facility in Aurora, Colo.
“There are currently three judges that see all detained immigrants,” said Trefonas.
“Their first hearing would be a bond hearing, if paid they’re released,” she said.
If a detainee can’t pay, “then we fight the deportation while they’re in custody,” she said, “but our preference is to bond the person out, get them back to Jackson, get them through their case and hopefully win their green card through the process.”
Casper immigration attorneys Haley Roe at the Law Offices of Jon Huss hasn’t noticed much of an increase in referrals this year, but said they saw a rise over the Christmas season.
“I have a few cases pending where the likely outcome would be they have families here and they’ll have to leave,” said Roe.
“There are different ways to stay here. One of them is you’ve been in the U.S. for 10 years and have a family member that would experience difficulty with you leaving.”
“The problem is if you’ve been here nine years, you don’t qualify,” she said.
The process of legally working the immigration system is daunting.
Master calendar hearings are scheduling hearings with a judge to determine how a case will proceed. Deadlines are set and future hearings scheduled. No legal claims or defenses are heard, “you don’t really talk about their case,” says Roe.
Individual hearings about the merits of a case are being scheduled a year to a year-and-a-half out, Roe said. The month-long government shutdown in December and January clogged an already backlogged system.
“We have one client who was scheduled for early January and is now scheduled for November of 2019,” said Roe.
“Defending a deportation case now can take years,” said Trafonas, “so you definitely want a person bonded out, and we have hearings set in 2021.”
“Where we’ll be in 2021, who knows, so the win for us is getting time for that person,.” Trafonas said.
“One of the biggest myths is how (undocumented immigrants) intend to want to stay undocumented,” said Trafonas.
The majority of her clients have found themselves “stuck” as their work or visas expire and changing policies have made them more difficult or impossible to obtain.
Trafonas’s law firm gets about four new case consultations a week. “Ninety percent of the time we tell people we can’t help them,” she said.
“The law is just broken, there’s nothing I can do.”