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One Legacy of Sheriff Larry Stelma – Profiting from Separating Immigrant Families

October 4, 2018

It was announced a few months ago that Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma was retiring.

The announcement of his retirement came in the midst of the campaign led by Moviemiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapids Response to ICE to end the county’s contract with ICE.

In an article announcing his retirement, Stelma said that the campaign to end the contract with ICE had nothing to do with his decision to retire. While it is up for debate whether or not the campaign to end the ICE contract had anything to do with his decision to retire, it certainly is part of the legacy that Sheriff Stelma will leave behind.

Larry Stelma served as Sheriff during a time of jail expansion, which means that he presided over an increase in Kent County’s role in the Prison Industrial Complex and Mass Incarceration. Thousands of people who have come through the Kent County Jail were there for non-violent offenses, which speaks to the county’s failure to provide adequate alternatives for people who did not need to go to jail.

In 2012, Sheriff Stelma agreed to a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a contract that saw an increase in arrests, detentions and deportation during the Obama administration and the subsequent Trump administration. 

In 2017, Kent County signed an extension of the ICE contract, a contract which provided financial incentives for the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff Stelma signed onto a letter from the National Sheriff’s Association in March of 2018, which is more of an ideological statement about immigration. Part of that letter reads: 

Congress must act to pass legislation to secure our borders through enforcing immigration laws, tightening border security, support the replacement and upgrades to current barriers and fencing and construction of barriers along the U.S. and Mexico international boundary as requested by those areas where it is needed, suspending and/or monitoring the issuance of visas to any place where adequate vetting cannot occur, end criminal cooperation and shelter in cities, counties, and states, and have zero tolerance and increased repercussions for criminal aliens. I stand firm with my fellow Sheriffs throughout our nation to have our borders secured first, in full cooperation and support of our promise and mission to uphold and enforce our nation’s laws, and we expect nothing less from Congress.

This ideological commitment to criminalize immigrants became evident as soon as the End the Contract with ICE campaign began in late June of this year. In late July, after organizers from the End the Contract campaign went to Kent County Commission Chair Jim Saalfeld’s home, Stelma had these words to say:

“Trying to intimidate anyone just isn’t the American way.”

We responded with an article headlined, Kent County Sheriff Stelma is either stupid or in denial about intimidation being un-American. 

The Sheriff’s Department, under Larry Stelma’s leadership, has continued to hold firm on their position that they will not end the County’s contract with ICE, despite the growing opposition to the contract and numerous meetings that organizers have had with county officials.

As Sheriff Larry Stelma is set to retire by the end of October, it is important to point out that he leaves a legacy of separating immigrant families in Kent County and endorsing

a contract with ICE, which allowed the jail to profit from family separation. I, for one, am not sorry to see him go.

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