The Ramsey County Sheriff's Office is getting out of the business of housing inmates facing deportation at a time when immigration authorities are on the lookout for more detention beds in the area.

As of this month, the county will no longer board detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at its Adult Detention Center. Sheriff Jack Serier said the expenses and logistical hurdles of housing those inmates had come to outweigh reimbursements his office receives from the federal government.

The county set the goal of weaning itself from that revenue years ago. Its ICE detainee numbers have dwindled even as other Minnesota county jails that contract with the agency have seen a marked rise amid the Trump administration's stepped-up immigration enforcement.

ICE said the change won't be an issue. Agency officials met with Serier in December to try to salvage the contract, pointing to the detention center's convenient location near the airport and immigration court. Serier said the decision was final.

"I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Ramsey County first and foremost," he said.

Immigrant advocates have long pressed the county to pull out of its contract with ICE, arguing the facility was never designed for long-term detention and invoking an Ecuadorean immigrant's death more than 10 years ago followed by a brief moratorium on taking ICE inmates. Some welcomed the sheriff's decision, even as they worried about an unintended consequence: More Twin Cities ICE inmates could find themselves detained farther from their attorneys and families.

Bucking the trend

The St. Paul ICE office — covering Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska — also contracts with sheriff's offices in Sherburne, Freeborn, Carver and Nobles counties. As the number of immigration inmates rose over the summer, some facilities started sending more local inmates to other counties and housing more detainees two to a cell. For some, the revenue from federal authorities has not only helped defray the cost of running the jails but also has been used for other county projects.

In Ramsey, in contrast, the trend has been toward fewer ICE inmates. During the mid-2000s, the recently opened detention center brought in as much as $1.7 million in annual revenue from ICE. Numbers for all of 2017 were not immediately available, but in the first half of the year, that revenue was less than $32,000.

Serier said his predecessor, Matt Bostrom, and the County Board set a goal of reducing immigration inmates to zero. Rather than soliciting business from ICE in recent years, Serier said, "Our position became, 'We're willing to help if we get asked.' "

He said ICE's system of classifying detainees — with different levels depending on their immigration or criminal violations — caused logistical challenges in the busy facility. Time-consuming ICE audits added a layer of bureaucracy. And, Serier said, ICE paid $80 per detainee per day while the Sheriff's Office puts the average daily cost of housing inmates at $159.50.

Immigrant advocates have argued for years that Ramsey should stop boarding immigration detainees.

The issue came to the fore in 2006 following the death of a 30-year-old woman facing deportation to Ecuador. Her family contended she had complained of headaches for days and had received painkillers only just before she slipped into a coma apparently caused by a parasitic brain infection. Jail officials denied they had acted improperly, and an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general failed to produce conclusive evidence that the death could have been avoided.

An advocate push

Still, advocates made the death cause célèbre in opposing Ramsey's partnership with ICE, arguing the county should not be in the business of holding immigrants, some of whom had no criminal offenses. In 2006, the County Board approved a moratorium on accepting ICE detainees, but later a split board reversed course.

Activists have continued to push. Some such as John Keller, head of the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center, brought up the issue with Serier after he took over in early 2017. They have argued the detention center, where inmates spend six days on average, is not suited for immigration detentions that can stretch on for months. It lacks amenities such as outdoor space and a library, though it has provided mobile book carts.

"A day or two in the jail is very different from long-term warehousing," said Michele McKenzie of the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights.

Serier said advocates have been a "welcome part of the conversation" and concerns about the limitations of the facility factored into the final decision.

Last fall, ICE posted a notice inquiring about the availability of 200 to 600 additional detention beds at public or private facilities in Minnesota and nearby states that the St. Paul office covers. Through September 2017, that office arrested about 3,400 people, a more than 70 percent increase over the same period the previous year.

No big impact on ICE

But Shawn Neudauer, a St. Paul spokesman for the agency, said other Minnesota facilities can absorb the relatively small number of detainees that Ramsey recently held.

"We have a good relationship with Ramsey County," he said. "We're really happy with our partnership with them."

Serier said he hopes to stay on positive terms with the federal agency as well. His office does not honor requests to hold county detainees longer for ICE without a judicial order. It does notify the agency when it is about to release inmates ICE wants to take into custody.

Other sheriff's offices in the state said they have no plans to jettison their contracts with ICE. Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said his office just negotiated its first price increase since 2009, from about $77 to $95.86 a day.

Advocates generally welcomed Ramsey's move — with some misgivings. Danielle Robinson Briand, a local immigration attorney and member of the advocacy group MIRAC, said the group had weighed a campaign last year against the contracts. It decided against it in the end, she said: "If we say we don't want immigration detention in Minnesota, they'll just find space out of state."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781