King and Snohomish counties are among jurisdictions that could be targeted by the Justice Department because both reject at least some requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold people in jail for possible immigration violations.
King and Snohomish county officials Monday shrugged off remarks by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions for not doing more to help the Trump administration capture and deport people living in the U.S. illegally.
Sessions said the Department of Justice will turn up the pressure by withholding grants from cities and counties not in compliance with a federal law that covers communication between local governments and federal immigration authorities.
He said the jurisdictions have policies “designed to frustrate” immigration enforcement, adding, “Such policies cannot continue. They make our nation less safe.”
Sessions singled out local governments that reject at least some requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold people in jail for possible immigration violations beyond when they would otherwise be released.
King and Snohomish counties were on a list of those jurisdictions published by the Department of Homeland Security last week.
But King County Sheriff John Urquhart said his office is in no danger of missing out on money because its policies and practices are in line with the federal law in question, U.S. Code Section 1373.
“We’re not violating 1373, no way,” Urquhart said. “1373 requires us to talk to immigration officials and it requires them to talk to us, and we do that.”
Shari Ireton, spokeswoman for Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, made the same point.
The law “prohibits restrictions on sharing information regarding citizenship or immigration status,” and Trenary’s office “does not have any policies that prohibit or otherwise restrict sharing this information,” Ireton said.
“We provide information requested by ICE agents to assist them in any criminal investigation they may be conducting,” the spokeswoman said.
The ICE requests, often called “immigration detainers,” are formal but not legally binding — and they aren’t warrants. That’s because immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government, not local governments.
Since 2014, King County has honored immigration detainers only for people for whom ICE has obtained a criminal warrant. Snohomish County doesn’t honor immigration detainers at all. It only honors warrants.
“The White House continues to use fear to try to divide us,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.
“If this is about complying with federal law, King County should continue to receive federal funds for important criminal-justice programs.”
Sessions spoke at a White House press briefing as the administration sought to move past the major defeat Friday of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Last week’s list and Monday’s remarks stem from the “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” order that President Donald Trump issued on Jan. 30.
Besides withholding Department of Justice grants, Sessions said the Department of Justice would “also take all lawful steps to claw back any funds awarded to a jurisdiction” not in compliance.
Sessions named grants made through the Department of Justice’s offices of Justice Programs and Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS). This fiscal year, those total $4.1 billion, he said.
He said the Trump administration’s actions will be in line with guidance issued last year by the Department of Justice under the Obama administration.
King and Snohomish County officials have for some time objected to using local resources to carry out immigration enforcement.
Going after undocumented immigrants can erode trust between local law-enforcement and communities, they have said.
Though Sessions spoke at length Monday about jurisdictions that deny detainer requests, he didn’t explicitly link the withholding of grants to that issue, Urquhart noted.
“What I think he tried to do was throw up a bunch of smoke and bluster around detainers, but he never said they’d pull funding if we don’t honor detainers,” the sheriff said. “There are two reasons: One, they’re voluntary. And two, several federal courts have said they’re unconstitutional.”
Constantine echoed Urquhart, saying, “We will honor ICE detainer requests only if accompanied by an appropriate, legal order. That is consistent with the constitution, and our values. Today’s announcement attempts to undermine both.”
King County is scheduled to receive about $3.5 million in Department of Justice funding this year and next for uses ranging from adult and juvenile detention to domestic-violence training and prosecution, according to Constantine’s office.
The sheriff’s office had a COPS grant that expired at the end of last year, according to the executive’s office.
Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, the period of time analyzed to put together last week’s list, Snohomish County received 12 immigration-detainer requests. That was tied for the fourth-most in the country.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office decided to deny requests starting in 2014, when a federal judge in Oregon ruled that honoring immigration detainers without probable cause is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, Ireton said.
“To our knowledge, ICE agents have not presented a single warrant to our jail” since then, the spokeswoman said.
King County has honored three immigration-detainer requests in the past three years.
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said local officials are right to ignore Sessions’ threat.
“This is an attempt to intimidate local law-enforcement agencies into being part of Trump’s deportation force, and take actions which are unlawful and would harm public safety,” Taylor said.
“The federal government is asking law enforcement to hold people in jail without warrants signed by a judge, which is unconstitutional. We’re proud that sheriffs in King and Snohomish County are pushing back against this unfunded mandate.”
The Obama administration guidance that Sessions mentioned Monday didn’t identify local governments with policies explicitly restricting the sharing of people’s immigration status with ICE.
But it said the policies of some jurisdictions, such as New York City, may be causing local officials there to, in practice, violate U.S. Code Section 1373.
The “sanctuary” label is unofficial and somewhat problematic. It isn’t a legal term, and interpretations vary.
Broadly, people use it to describe jurisdictions with policies and practices that limit local involvement in immigration enforcement. For example, Mayor Ed Murray refers to Seattle as a sanctuary city because of an ordinance barring city employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, with some exceptions.
But Seattle doesn’t operate a jail, so it doesn’t receive detainer requests and wasn’t on last week’s list.
And jurisdictions that call themselves sanctuaries, such as Seattle, can control only their own affairs. They can’t stop federal authorities from detaining and deporting people.