Story by Devon Magliozzi and Kelsey O’Connor

ITHACA, N.Y. — After a deputy reported that a Mexican man was in the U.S. illegally to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office has put out a clear policy stating deputies may not “stop, question, interrogate, investigate, or arrest” based on actual or suspected immigration status.

On Wednesday, Sheriff Derek Osborne said a man, who is believed to be a Mexican national, entered a medical office in Lansing after hours claiming health issues and said he wanted his blood pressure checked. Osborne said he was greeted by a facilities worker who called 911. An ambulance and deputy arrived, and when the deputy was interviewing him, the man was “elusive” about providing his identity and admitted he was in the U.S. illegally and passing through Ithaca from the Bronx, Osborne said.

The deputy then contacted ICE and immigration officials came to arrest the man. He was in ICE custody as of Thursday, Osborne said. The man’s identity has not been released, and Osborne said he doesn’t know his real name still.

“I can’t go back in time to fix the situation, but I can work to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Osborne said.

Osborne said his first response after the incident was to research what policies and procedures exist within the department and said he found “no evidence that any policy was ever created in the sheriff’s office to reflect the county resolution, so obviously that’s a huge problem.” Osborne has since released a policy, shared online by The Cornell Daily Sun.

The policy states that personnel from the sheriff’s office “shall not stop, interrogate, investigate, or arrest an individual” based on their actual or suspected immigration or citizenship status or a “civil immigration warrant” or an immigration detainer in the individual’s name. It also says deputies should not “inquire about the immigration status of an individual, including a crime victim, a witness, or a person who calls or approaches the police seeking assistance, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual.”

The arrest Wednesday was one of two this week in Tompkins County, according to ICE. Khaalid Walls, spokesman for ICE, said two “unlawfully present foreign nationals” were arrested by ICE officers this week in Tompkins County. Walls said an investigation is underway and declined to provide any further information about the two people arrested.

By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security), via Wikimedia Commons

The policy Osborne released is in line with the city and county’s move to become sanctuary municipalities in 2017. The Ithaca policy directed that city officials do not ask for a person’s immigration status unless the person is actively committing a crime related to their status.

Related: Tompkins moves to become a sanctuary county; here’s what that means

At the time of the county’s resolution, former sheriff Ken Lansing said he and deputies within his department would not ask for a person’s immigration status unless it was directly relevant to an investigation. In a statement at the time, Lansing said deputies will not ask for immigration status because they “do not have the constitutional authority, intention, nor the personnel to enforce federal laws.”

“The whole meaning behind the legislation, and where I’m coming from … it’s important to me and the sheriff’s office that we do what we can to make people comfortable. So if they’re the victim of a crime or need help with something, they feel comfortable talking to us,” Osborne said.

If the man detained by immigration officials Wednesday had had a form of identification, Osborne said the situation may have been avoided. Last week, Osborne and Undersheriff Jennifer Olin sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the New York State Senate and Assembly voicing his support for “Green Light NY: Driving Together Coalition,” which would provide equal access to driver’s licenses for all people in New York regardless of their immigration status.

The City of Ithaca has previously supported granting driver’s licenses to New York residents regardless of immigration status. Currently, if someone wants to get a driver’s license or permit in New York, they have to show proof of birth and proof of social security. A non-citizen would have to show their passport; a document showing they have legal status in the U.S. like a visa; and proof of social security or of ineligibility for social security.

“Without access to licenses, many immigrants are unable to purchase, register, and insure their own vehicles. As a result, they face major barriers to meeting the most basic needs of day-to-day life,” the letter sent by Obsorne and Olin reads. “Out of sheer necessity, many immigrants drive without licenses, putting them at odds with law enforcement, undermining trust between police and immigrant communities, and increasing the risk of a traffic violation.”

Osborne said he has not taken any disciplinary action with regard to the deputy involved, but that he will work to fix the issue internally. “It’s my job as sheriff to make sure local legislation is reflected in our policies,” he said.

Read the letter from Osborne and Olin below:

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.