Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson spearheaded a coalition of 275 sheriffs that sent an open letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, criticizing his handling of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We want the president to return to the policies that the previous administration put in place that were working to prevent illegal immigrants coming into this country, and to reinstate the rule of law in supporting the sheriffs in our efforts to keep our community safe," Hodgson told GBH News on Thursday.
Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings also signed onto the letter. His office did not respond to an inquiry from GBH News.
The letter comes as an uptick in migrants at the country's southern borderpresents a significant test for the Biden administration. U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended nearly 172,000 people trying to cross the boder in March — the most in 15 years, according to administration officials.
"America’s sheriffs recognize that in order for democracy to flourish and remain healthy in our republic, we must uphold and enforce the rule of law," the sheriffs wrote in the letter. "There is no place for injecting political agendas that diminish the safety and security of our nation. We cannot undermine the confidence and faith of the people in our basic precept of equal justice under the law. Our founders established the legislative branch of government to create and amend laws. Neither 'We, the People' nor the founders ever intended for those elected officials chosen by the American people to represent their interests to circumvent the legislature and decide for themselves what special class of individuals will be excused from abiding by our existing laws."
The Biden administrationhas advisedImmigration and Customs Enforcement agents to focus their energies on going after migrants who pose threats to national security and public safety.
Hodgson said that approach is making the country less safe. He and the other sheriffs are calling for Bide to restore some of former President Donald Trump's most signature — and most controversial — politics. That's unlikely to happen in the current administration.
"The continuation of the plan to finish building the wall is critically important on the border in this overall security plan," Hodgson said. "As well as the agreements that were in place with Mexico and with the northern triangle countries that kept these individuals in Mexico without letting them into the United States, so that we could have a better opportunity to control what we are unable to control now, and has turned into a real crisis."
Hodgson accused Biden of reversing those policies for political reasons, rather than in the interest of public safety.
"Within two days [of taking office], with the swipe of a pen, he wipes out the progress that had been made that supported our efforts to keep our community safe and ultimately open the floodgates to let all of these people come into this country," Hodgson said. "And he's inundated us with an inability to be able to keep up with it."
Hodgson said the issue isn't confined to border states and that people who enter the country without legal permission have gone on to settle in Massachusetts in large numbers. He cited a Pew Research Center reportlisting Massachusetts among the few states that saw an increase in "unauthorized immigrant totals" between 2007 and 2016.
Hodgson is on the advisory committee for Protect America Now, a group launched in February to press for stricter immigration enforcement.
Immigration advocates in Massachusetts dismissed the letter as a political stunt.
"No one should pay any attention to Sheriff Hodgson on these matters," said Oren Sellstrom of the legal advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights. "He's a lawless sheriff who has no business attempting to cloak himself in the rule of law."
Sellstrom pointed to a 2020 report by Attorney General Maura Healey that said Hodgson violated the civil rights of prisoners during a violent altercation in Bristol County Jail, as well as a federal judge's ruling last year that ICE “likely” violated the constitutional rights of detainees in Bristol County by failing to protect them from COVID-19. The judge orderedwidespread COVID testing in the facility.
"It's astounding, frankly, that someone with that record of lawless behavior would have the gall to preach about the need for law and order," Sellstrom said.
Earlier this week, a federal judge scheduled a hearing for May on a settlement to extend the release from Bristol County Jail of more than 140 immigrants out of a concern for possible COVID infections.
"There's no wrongdoing on the part of us or ICE," Hodgson said of that settlement. "ICE did not want to continue to litigate the case, unfortunately."
The judge in the case said the Bristol County Sheriff's Department and ICE hadn't done "anything outside the regulations and the guidelines of CDC or DPH," Hodgson said.
"It's my understanding, once this settlement happens, we will be able to again repopulate our ICE facility and hold these detainees going forward," Hodgson added.
For Eva Millona, this week's letter from the sheriffs to Biden didn't come across as a list of policy recommendations, "but rather as a political statement of a minority group of sheriffs."
Millona, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said that the Biden administration inherited an "incredibly challenging" immigration situation from Trump.
"And I think they're working around the clock to address the issue, to keep us all safe, to manage the borders in times of crisis, given COVID-19 and everything else that is happening," she said. "But we have to remember that we are dealing with people. We are dealing with families. We are dealing with children. This is not about numbers."