Counties in Washington state have joined a growing number of local jurisdictions in Colorado and Oregon that will no longer detain immigrants who are eligible for release on behalf of federal immigration authorities.
Walla Walla, Kitsap and Thurston counties are some of the first confirmed counties in Washington to change their policies after a recent federal-court decision in Oregon that found that such detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not commands that local jurisdictions must abide by, and that sheriffs could be liable for constitutional violations for holding people past the time when they would otherwise be released
King County changed its policy last year, before the court decision. In a December vote, the Metropolitan King County Council said immigrants who are arrested for low-level crimes will not be held for ICE, but immigrants arrested for serious and midlevel crimes will be.
Snohomish County is reviewing its policy and should make a decision about whether to honor ICE detainer requests within the next few days, spokeswoman Shari Ireton said Wednesday.
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A federal judge ruled earlier this month that Oregon’s Clackamas County
violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a woman who had been detained for more than two weeks on an ICE hold. The woman had been found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to 48 hours in jail, but she was eligible to leave after posting bail.
In Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project are putting pressure on sheriffs to stop honoring the so-called detainers.
The two groups sent letters to 38 county sheriffs telling them the federal-court ruling opens the possibility of lawsuits.
“Anyone could file a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who are unlawfully detained, not just our organizations. But we will certainly be monitoring how these jurisdictions react to the ruling and be prepared to assist individuals whose constitutional rights are violated,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
In Colorado, Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson said Wednesday that he would stop honoring ICE detainer requests, joining a handful of other counties in the state that have made the same decision. Those include Boulder, Mesa and San Miguel counties.
Nearly 30 counties in Oregon changed their policies after the court ruling.
For years, immigration agents have combed jail rosters looking for immigrants who are in the country illegally. The Obama administration has said its immigration policy is heavily focused on deporting immigrants with criminal records, and enhancing programs, like Secure Communities, which checks fingerprints for violations, around those goals.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with law-enforcement partners as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public-safety threats,” said ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz.
The issue around holding immigrants in jails has been a rallying point for immigration advocates. In Washington, a measure that would have barred local jurisdictions from detaining immigrants unless the person had been convicted of a serious crime was pushed in Olympia. The Washington bill died, but a similar measure was approved in California and the number of detainers has dropped significantly. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Maryland are considering similar legislation.
Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he’s worried counties will get sued, and disagreed with that part of the court ruling.
“They believed they were acting in good faith and legally,” he said.
In Kitsap County, a memo was sent last week outlining the change, said Deputy Scott Wilson. In Walla Walla, the new detainer policy issued said the Oregon case clarified the federal law around detainers, saying they are “requests” and not commands.
“As a result of these decisions, the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office shall cease to hold individuals in custody when the only authority for such custody is a request contained in a DHS ICE immigration detainer,” the order said.
Information from Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell and from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.