Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has been cast by critics as an amenable ally to immigration authorities. But a trove of e-mails and letters obtained by the Star Tribune shows he repeatedly clashed with enforcement officials in recent years over the transfer of local jail inmates into federal custody.

Immigrant rights advocates and elected officials have questioned what they see as a cozy bond between the Sheriff’s Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the correspondence reveals a more tense and more complex relationship.

ICE officials frequently complained that Stanek wasn’t giving them adequate notice before releasing inmates they wanted to take into custody. He countered they weren’t showing up fast enough; he rejected some overtures for closer collaboration and sometimes went up the chain of command to blast St. Paul-based ICE leadership. An ICE official once dubbed the issues with Stanek’s office the “seven-headed hydra that just won’t die.”

Recently, local critics of Stanek’s cooperation with ICE successfully pushed for a new county fund to chip in for immigrants’ legal expenses — and vowed to challenge Stanek’s re-election.

“We are fully committed to be very loud about what’s happening in the Sheriff’s Office,” said JaNaé Bates of the group Isaiah, which was not involved in obtaining the ICE documents.

Stanek did not respond to requests for comment, but he has previously said his stance has been clear: Immigrants who have broken the law should not be released back onto the streets.

Competing grievances

Last year, advocacy groups, the county public defender’s office, some county commissioners and Minneapolis City Council members accused Stanek’s office of going too far in helping ICE take inmates released from jail into custody, including some charged but never convicted and some guilty of minor offenses.

Citing legal challenges, the Sheriff’s Office announced back in 2014 that it would no longer honor requests by ICE to hold inmates for up to 48 hours. But activists criticized a practice of alerting ICE when foreign-born inmates are booked at the jail and putting them on the phone with ICE agents. When ICE asks, Stanek’s office also notifies the agency that an inmate is about to be released.

Last year, a Twin Cities immigrant rights activist, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, put in a Freedom of Information Act request with ICE for correspondence with and about Stanek. The agency produced more than 200 pages, some heavily redacted. The activist shared the correspondence with the Star Tribune.

Much of the correspondence involves competing grievances. Those disagreements surfaced publicly last spring, when the federal Department of Homeland Security included Hennepin County on a short-lived list of uncooperative jurisdictions, a move Stanek challenged vocally.

In e-mails from recent years, agency staff repeatedly complained about county cooperation, sometimes referring to Stanek sarcastically as their “favorite sheriff.” In 2016, an agent waited for more than an hour and a half at the jail while staff processed an inmate for release, only to discover the detainee had left through another exit.

Last year, an agent got a voice mail from the jail alerting him that an inmate was about to be released. By the time the agent called the jail back, the inmate had been let go. But Stanek argued agents were failing to make it to the jail on time or at all to detain inmates, including some with serious criminal records.

He sometimes angered local ICE leadership by taking complaints to a Washington, D.C., official. Local field office director Scott Baniecke, who recently retired, had to explain himself to superiors, calling the sheriff “a very polished politician.” His office did not pick up some inmates because they were released after hours or were not priorities for the agency.

‘A really tough spot’

The records show the Sheriff’s Office began calling ICE about new foreign-born arrivals at the jail in 2011. More recently, Stanek quizzed ICE about how proactive his deputies need to be in advising inmates that giving place of birth information and taking ICE agents’ calls are voluntary. ICE officials said no notice is required.

But in late 2016, staff alerted Baniecke about a major drop-off in calls about newly booked foreign-born inmates at the jail. The public defender’s office had complained about the calls, staff wrote, and deputies had started asking inmates whether they wanted to speak with immigration agents before alerting ICE. It’s not clear from e-mails how that issue was resolved, but the jail has reverted to notifying ICE of all foreign-born inmates.

At times, Stanek rebuffed overtures from ICE, such as when he declined a request in 2016 to name a point person to handle communication with the agency. The correspondence, which goes through last summer, ends on a collegial note, with an agreement to provide an office for ICE agents at the jail.

In a statement, Peter Berg, the new ICE field office director in St. Paul, said his office values its relationship with Stanek’s office: “We look forward to enhancing our common goal of enforcing the law and ensuring the public is served.”

Bates, of Isaiah, who had not reviewed the e-mails, said even if the sheriff and ICE have clashed, Stanek’s interest in ensuring the agency takes custody of those released from the jail remains an issue. Her group advocated for a $250,000 fund to help with county residents’ immigration court bills, which commissioners approved.

“We pushed so hard for the immigration defense fund because we knew the political will Sheriff Stanek has been putting in trying to collaborate with ICE,” Bates said.

County Commissioner Jan Callison said Stanek has struck the right balance between partnering with federal agencies but not going out of his way to accommodate them. She said he has closely followed the advice of County Attorney Mike Freeman in working with ICE and has refrained from turning deputies into immigration enforcers.

“I think Sheriff Stanek is in a really tough spot,” she said. “For the advocacy community he is a proxy for the administration, and for the administration he is a proxy for the advocacy community.”