King County will not honor federal immigration authorities’ requests to hold immigrants who are arrested for low-level crimes, the Metropolitan King County Council decided Monday by a 5-4 vote.
Supporters of the new policy said it will build trust between local police and immigrants who don’t report crimes for fear they or a family member will be deported.
King County has routinely honored requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants, in the country both legally and illegally, who qualify for deportation. The requests are common across the U.S. as part of a federal program called Secure Communities, through which fingerprints of all inmates in local jails are sent to the FBI.
Under the new county legislation, people convicted of serious crimes, such as violent assaults and sex crimes, or midlevel offenses such as residential burglaries, would still be held.
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Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, Joe McDermott, Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer voted no.
The legislation was a “balancing act,” said Council President Larry Gossett, who has worked on it for two years.
Immigration advocates had hoped King County would ignore all of the ICE hold requests. Others thought the county should cooperate with holds for immigrants who have long criminal histories, no matter how minor their crimes.
“I support detaining dangerous people, which we continue to do with this legislation,” said Councilmember Julia Patterson. But she said what it means is that “a man who gets caught up in an altercation at a bar, or a woman who gets arrested for trespassing won’t have their families and their lives torn apart.”
During a tense debate, Lambert sought to add more restrictions to the law. She said immigrants convicted of 10 crimes, regardless of what they are, should be held because such a person “is not a good neighbor.”
Gossett balked, asking under his breath, “not a good neighbor. What does that even mean?
“If I came into my neighborhood and said ‘I’m not going to talk to anybody who committed any crime,’ I’d just be talking to myself.”
King County has waded into immigration issues before. In 2009, the county adopted legislation making county services available to all residents regardless of immigration status. King County sheriff’s deputies are not allowed even to ask for proof of citizenship.
King County Republican Party representative Ashley Burman testified that the legislation was just a way of “scoring political points” from what should be a simple administrative task. If people eligible for deportation are not held in jail, ICE agents will be forced into communities, she said.
A March study by a University of Washington researcher found that people subject to federal immigration detainer requests stay in jail 29 days longer than others. Not honoring the requests would save King County and local cities $1.8 million a year, according to the study by Katherine Beckett.
“In a place like King County, with lots of immigrants, the community really is eyes and ears for the police, you know, victims and witnesses to a crime,” said Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “Even if it’s perceived that there’s the possibility that local cops are entangled with immigration enforcement … then police lose those eyes and ears.”
An oversight group will review the limitations and consider whether detainers should be eliminated altogether. Its first report is due in January 2015.
Narayan said: “The victory that we’ve won is that in the vast, vast majority of cases, our hope is, the detainers will not be honored.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter