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Easing fears about ICE a focus of Willmar Human Rights Commission

Tribune file photo Jennifer Mendoza raises her hand to ask Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, left, and Francisco Ortiz a question during a "Policing in Diverse Communities” seminar held in Willmar in February. The Willmar Human Rights Commission is working with local law enforcement to try and ease fears some in the community have about Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE, and how far local law enforcement partners with the federal agency.

WILLMAR — When the Willmar Human Rights Commission restarted in February 2016, after years of inactivity, the new commission members struggled with what their mission was going to be.

Since this past January, they seem to have found their footing and are now focusing on easing the fears some in the community have about Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE, and how far local law enforcement partners with the federal agency.

"One of the charges of the commission is education. This is the first task we are going to do," Shelly Huseby, president of the Willmar Human Rights Commission, said.

In March, the faith group ISAIAH approached the commission regarding concerns they had about ICE and local law enforcement.

"What ISAIAH wanted to know is are the police looking for undocumented people. What is the local involvement?" Huseby said.

At the May 16 commission meeting, both Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt and Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog attended and answered several questions about what their departments do and how closely they work with ICE.

"We realize there is a lot of anxiety in the public now with changes in the presidency and administration. In perception on how the police are handling immigration issues. We hope to give you what is happening in Willmar, Minnesota, and straighten out some rumors," Felt said at the meeting.

When it comes to ICE both the Sheriff's Office and Police Department have little contact with the federal agency on a day-to-day basis.

"We have their phone number, we don't have regular meetings with ICE," Felt said.

The only time people are specifically asked about their citizenship is if they are being booked into the county jail. Or, immigration issues could also come up during criminal investigations or if a federal warrant or watch list comes up when a driver's license is scanned during a traffic stop. That is when ICE would be notified.

"We don't target people, we don't look for people that I am going to walk up to and ask for their immigration status. We don't do that. It has to be tied to a crime," Hartog said.

The county doesn't hold people indefinitely for ICE. If they haven't come to retrieve the person before the individual is due to be discharged, the person is released.

"They go out the front door," Hartog said.

Huseby, who took part in a ride along with a Willmar police officer this summer, said both the police department and sheriff's department treat everyone the same during traffic stops or when an officer comes to residence, regardless of race.

"They really want to have a working relationship going both ways, and want people to call them," Huseby said.

After the May meeting, the commission started discussing possible ways to share the information Hartog and Felt gave to the wider Willmar community. Instead of holding public meetings, which might not be attended by those who would really need the information, the commission has decided to video record Hartog and Felt on Sept. 5. The chief and sheriff will answer again most, if not all, the questions they did in May. The question and answer session is then to be translated into at least Spanish and Somali before being aired on WRAC. Huseby hopes to get the video out to the community as soon as possible.

"There is a lot of fear. There is a sense of urgency to get this information out. This has been a topic, an area we really need to educate people about," Huseby said.

While it is heartbreaking to hear some of the stories people have gone through in regards to immigration and deportation, Huseby hopes the commission's project will help put people more at ease and assist in growing a positive relationship between local law enforcement and the immigrant and refugee community.

"This is an active commission that wants to do something that matters," Huseby said.