The Metropolitan King County Council will consider an ordinance preventing its jail from honoring requests from federal immigration authorities to “hold for pick up” immigrant inmates who have committed only low-level offenses.
The legislation, which council President Larry Gossett expects to introduce within weeks, would be a departure from the practice by jails and prisons across the state and many nationwide of detaining all immigrants — those in the country both legally and illegally — who qualify for deportation.
Immigrant advocates have long pushed for the change as a way to preserve community trust in law enforcement and to limit what they see as the breakup of families when parents and breadwinners are taken away.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds are part of a nationwide program known as Secure Communities, through which fingerprints of all inmates booked in local jails and sent to the FBI are checked against a national immigration database.
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ICE then places a 48-hour detainer on those it deems deportable. In the past these inmates would be held by local authorities and turned over to ICE to face deportation proceedings, regardless of whether the offense for which they were arrested involved one such as trespassing or something more serious, like rape or assault.
Now, as part of its move to emphasize enforcement on criminal immigrants, ICE in December tweaked the guidelines to focus more closely on serious offenses. Advocates say that doesn’t go far enough — that the new guidelines are too vague, the net is still too wide and the changes have not made a difference.
Gosset pointed to a report by University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett that inmates with ICE detainers spent an average 30 days more in jail than those without, based on 2011 data, and that just slightly more than half the inmates with ICE detainers were charged with a misdemeanor offense.
“I don’t see any value or important purpose in keep in jail 28 to 30 additional days folks who were picked up for some low-level misdemeanor or traffic infraction,” Gossett said. “It becomes a civil-rights issue to me.”
Several cities and counties across the country have similar measures in place and others, including Oregon’s Multnomah County, are considering them.
Such policies don’t sit well with immigration authorities, who point out it is the federal government, not local law enforcement, that determines what immigration enforcement action is appropriate.
In a statement, ICE said that identifying and removing criminals from the U.S. is its highest enforcement priority.
Between last October and the beginning of April, some 2,710 immigrants were deported from the Seattle region, which includes Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Some 70 percent of them were criminals.
That number is down 8 percent from the total deported during the same period a year earlier, when a smaller share were criminals.
“The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens are not released from prisons and jails into our communities,” the agency said.
“ICE is committed to continuing to work with local law enforcement to promote public safety and address potential threats to our communities.”
Craig Keller, head of the group RespectWashington, which is collecting signatures for an initiative to limit illegal immigration in the state, said, “Regardless of the reason they obtained the taxpayer’s hospitality of three hots and a cot, these illegals are criminal border jumpers and must be deported.”
Maru Villalpando, who is part of a coalition of immigrant advocates that has lobbied for the change, said a close read of the Secure Communities program shows it doesn’t obligate jails and prisons to hold anyone.
“We’re not trying to trump the federal government,” she said. “But if you’re going to honor the detainer, then you should do so for those that have committed violent criminal offenses.”
This propose county ordinance comes as Congress prepares to debate changes to the nation’s immigration laws that, among other things, would grant legal status to the estimated 10 million immigrants in the country unlawfully.
King County, along with the city of Seattle, already has a policy prohibiting law enforcement and some other agencies from asking people’s immigration status.
Gossett said he knows that with half the County Council up for re-election this year, such a divisive measure won’t get an easy pass.
He and two other council members initiated it last year when they asked County Executive Dow Constantine to use his executive powers to make the change.
Constantine, who is also up for re-election this year, kicked it back to the council earlier this year, essentially saying that while he supports the policy, he believed it proper that the council, not his office, enact the change.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.