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In Nevada, Democratic candidates shy away from key immigration debate

Former Vice President Joe Biden and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made time to sound off on immigration this week, stumping on a pivotal issue in immigrant-heavy Nevada. 

Both sat down for "immigration round-table" discussions in the early caucus state, Gillibrand on Monday streaming her over half-hour meeting with local activists live on Facebook. And on Tuesday, Biden made headlines vowing to protect veterans from deportation.

"Anybody who has fought for the United States of America should not be in a position to be deported, period," Biden declared to cheers at a rally in southern Nevada, denouncing the president for using immigration to "demonize Americans."

Yet while the Democratic candidates have eagerly scorned the president's immigration policies, they have said little on a controversial Trump administration partnership that has infuriated progressives in the state. 

Activists in Las Vegas have called on the city jail to stop meeting Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain undocumented immigrants arrested for nonviolent crimes beyond their scheduled release date. And they criticize police for participating in the controversial 287(g) program, effectively deputizing local jail officers as immigration agents.

"There are officers inside the Clark County Detention Center, our main jail, that are actually employed by our local police. But if you meet them, you will think they are ICE officers," Michael Kagan, director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Immigration Clinic, tells CBS News.

"They will function as immigration officers inside the jail, screening out people and starting the deportation process against them."

Julián Castro in April vowed to terminate 287(g) agreements, incorporating the pledge into his immigration policy platform. The former Obama housing chief was the first candidate to detail a comprehensive plan for immigration. 

As departments have done across the country, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo has defended his agency's 287(g) participation as key to "help identify violent criminals who are in our city illegally." And in the field, Las Vegas police insists that officers do not enforce immigration status. 

"The 287(g) program is only focused on individuals that are incarcerated or brought into custody. We are not a part of the ICE program that is out in the communities," Lieutenant Yancey Taylor, charged with overseeing the 287(g) program at the county detention center, tells CBS News.  

Law enforcement in 21 states have signed such agreements with ICE, according to the agency. The current agreement with Las Vegas police, signed in 2016 before President Trump's inauguration, must be renewed by June 30th.

"It's not just a Latino issue, although the community is a huge factor in our elections here," Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom tells CBS News. 

"I think everyone just wants Vegas to be known as a place where you are welcoming immigrants. And when the police are out, we don't want people here, legally and illegally, to be afraid."

When Biden was asked about ICE detainers, as he wrapped up his Nevada rally on Tuesday, the former vice president reportedly said he'd "change" the practice and encouraged him to look at the campaign's website for specifics.

However, Biden's website offers few policy details on the issue, aside from promising "a humane immigration policy that upholds our values, strengthens our economy, and secures our border."

"With so many years of failed efforts around immigration reform, there's a growing push for candidates who articulate concrete policy platforms that indicate exactly what actions they'll take," Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, tells CBS News.

"We need a clearly articulated, different approach that's going to acknowledge that immigrants are central to our communities and our economies."

In 2015, the White House threatened to veto Republican efforts to strip so-called "sanctuary cities" of federal funds. And the Obama administration eventually moved to dismantle much of the 287(g) program. ICE said that other programs would be a "more efficient use of resources" for the agency.

But during the 2016 election, candidate Trump vowed to reverse the 287(g) program's decline. At a speech in Phoenix, he promised to "expand and revitalize" the partnerships that his predecessor had "recklessly gutted." 

By 2017, President Trump made good on his campaign promise, including the program in a pair of sweeping executive orders on immigration. The president also threatened to punish sanctuary cities, though an effort to withhold federal funding was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. appeals court. 

Outraged by the orders, Democrats in the Senate soon introduced legislation to undo the president's action. Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all now presidential candidates, were among the bill's original co-sponsors.

In Las Vegas, critics argue the president's rhetoric has sharpened the need for the police department to end its cooperation with federal immigration authorities. 

"Our local police are actively cooperating with ICE, and especially in this time during the Trump era, that's pretty terrifying to a family who has undocumented immigrants," says Kagan.

"I worry, first and foremost, about a 16-year-old who knows that her parents are undocumented, will she be comfortable calling 911 if there is a problem in her house?"