Early last year, a Clark County Sheriff’s Office sergeant emailed a federal immigration officer about a man booked into the county jail. The subject line read: “one to check.”
The man “appears not to be a citizen,” Sgt. Paul Bond wrote.
“Thanks man, just sent over a detainer,” Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer Joran Vossler replied eight minutes later.
The exchange, documented by researchers at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, happened in January 2020, eight months after the state passed the Keep Washington Working Act, which restricts cooperation with federal immigration officials.
At the same time, other Clark County Sheriff’s Office staffers were also regularly sharing nonpublic information with ICE about immigrants booked into the jail, according to a report published by the center Wednesday that examined adherence to the state act.
The report identifies what it describes as “serious and systematic gaps in compliance across many Washington counties” and cites numerous, documented examples — most from 2019 and early 2020. They range from calling immigration officials to traffic stops, to holding jail inmates for federal agents beyond their release date without judicial warrants, to collecting information about where people booked into jails were born and faxing that in daily reports to ICE.
Some local law enforcement agencies admit mistakes, yet say the problem has been fixed.
“Upon learning that we had staff not properly following the law, we took corrective action in effort to ensure full and complete compliance with the law,” Clark County Undersheriff John Chapman wrote in an email. “We additionally met, repeatedly, with leadership of the local Latino community in effort to explain what happened, how and why.”
Chapman did not detail when his staff, which he said was engaged in “well-intentioned cooperation” with another law enforcement agency, stopped forwarding information to ICE. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported it had emails showing it was still happening in February 2021.
It’s unclear from the UW report whether local agencies continue to violate the act, unwittingly or not. “That’s a question on our minds as well,” said Phil Neff, a project coordinator for the human rights center. “The only way to determine that is continued research and monitoring.”
The report raises questions about some ongoing practices — as does the recent ICE arrest of an immigrant who was in possession of his U.S. passport when booked into the Pierce County jail on suspicion of driving his motorcycle under the influence. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said the staffer did not violate the law in telling ICE when the man would be released, because the information was public, but his attorney disagrees.
Keep Washington Working passed at a time when the Trump administration was ramping up immigration enforcement and railing against so-called sanctuary policies that sought to protect people living unlawfully in this country, including those who are rooted here with American-born family members and essential jobs. Washington fought back with a law that codified and extended those policies.
In the months afterward, the UW reports shows, some local officials were confused about how to implement aspects of the law, such as a prohibition on collecting information about where people were born, given an obligation to notify embassies and consulates when foreign nationals are booked into jails. Some turned not to the state attorney general’s office, which was developing guidance around the law, but to ICE or the Customs and Border Protection.
It was advice around that issue, as well as information about possible contradictions between state and federal laws, that Okanogan Sheriff Tony Hawley says he wanted when he wrote two customs officials in June 2019 — although the tone of his email suggested opposition to the state act.
“If possible,” Hawley wrote, asking for a meeting, “could you also research any federal laws which may help contradict” the state’s law regarding a sanctuary state.
Asked about the email, Hawley said: “It may have been worded poorly.”
Like at least a couple other counties, Okanogan determined it would notify embassies and consulates if jail inmates volunteer they come from other countries, but officials would not ask.
Hawley’s office has changed its practices in another way that arguably may still violate Keep Washington Working. The act prohibits jails from holding people beyond their release date because of a “hold request” from immigration officials. Such a request is one that is not accompanied by a court order, according to Dan Jackson, a spokesperson for state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Yet, the Okanogan Sheriff’s Office holds people for immigration officers if they provide a probable cause statement related to a suspected crime — signed by a federal agent, not a judge. And that crime could be an immigration offense, like entering the U.S. illegally, Hawley said.
The sheriff said his legal advisers have signed off on the policy, which in their view complies with the state law.
He and Okanogan County Undersheriff Aaron Culp said their job is not to enforce immigration law but to ensure public safety. In Okanagan County, which takes in a swath of the Canadian border, they said that entails working closely with the Border Patrol, which investigates drug and human trafficking in addition to immigration violations.
COVID-19 has, to some extent, masked the full extent to which local agencies are complying with Keep Washington Working since immigration enforcement slowed dramatically, noted Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. What will be interesting to watch, he said, is what will happen once ICE and Border Patrol again become more aggressive.