POLITICS
07/09/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2015

Why Some Cities Don't Rush To Turn Over Undocumented Immigrants To The Feds

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- In March 2007, while Ron Teachman was serving as the chief of police in New Bedford, Massachusetts, immigration enforcement carried out one of its largest workplace raids in history.

Hundreds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and police raided the Michael Bianco Inc. leather goods factory on the suspicion that the owner was employing undocumented immigrants. ICE officers arrested 361 undocumented immigrants, mostly women from Central America, who had been working in abysmal conditions for little pay. The detention of mothers left many children behind, prompting then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to call the situation a "humanitarian crisis."

Teachman, now chief of police in South Bend, Indiana, said watching the situation unfold was alarming. The immigrant community was shaken, and many were afraid to come to police to report crimes, he said.

In the years since, he has led a police force that cooperates with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to some degree, but is sharply aware of how damaging it can be for police to be seen as immigration agents.

"That incident really separated us," said Teachman, who also serves as co-chair of the national Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force. "Many of us in law enforcement are concerned that seemingly random deportation ... of our community members destabilizes our community and distances us from the people we're trying to serve. [It] undermines our efforts to build collaborative policing and trust."

As lawmakers aim to withhold funding from so-called "sanctuary cities" in the wake of a fatal shooting in San Francisco that was allegedly carried out by an undocumented immigrant, there could be consequences for the many jurisdictions around the country that limit their work with ICE -- whether on principle, for legal reasons, or both.

The more than 300 cities and counties that do not fully cooperate with the agency decline to do so to varying degrees. Some don't interact with ICE at all. Many others do, but make different distinctions about who should be held for ICE and for how long. That often means some local police will notify the agency before releasing individuals convicted of serious crimes, but won't hold people solely for the purpose of immigrant detention.

In San Francisco, that meant that the sheriff's office released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the previously deported undocumented immigrant who was charged with fatally shooting 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle last week, once prosecutors declined to pursue a 20-year-old marijuana possession charge. The sheriff has argued that ICE officials needed to obtain a warrant if they wanted Lopez-Sanchez to remain in custody; ICE officials have returned the blame and said they simply wanted notification prior to his release.

Not all "sanctuary cities" are like San Francisco. But in the wake of the shooting there, some lawmakers are proposing legislation that could block federal law enforcement grants for jurisdictions that limit work with ICE, even if they collaborate in some ways.

Law enforcement officials say that would be a mistake.

"To take federal funding away from an agency that's working in good faith with the federal partner, I don't see the law enforcement benefit or the public benefit of that," said Chief Eric Parra, who works in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Custody Division.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted in May to remove federal immigration enforcement from county jails while still cooperating with ICE in other ways. The county is reviewing further changes to how it deals with federal immigration enforcement.

Parra said the sheriff's office has tried to strike a balance between maintaining trust with the immigrant community and helping ICE deport serious criminals. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department makes its decisions in line with the Trust Act, a 2014 California state law that instructs police to hold undocumented immigrants upon ICE's request only for certain crimes.

"I believe, and the sheriff believes, that the community does not want violent offenders in the community, but they want to feel comfortable that they can call us and we are not going to go out and act as arms of the immigration authorities, which we do not do," he said.

ICE officials responded to local rebellion against its programs by announcing in November that a previous policy called Secure Communities would be scrapped and replaced with a new policy, the Priority Enforcement Program. ICE officials are currently in the process of asking jurisdictions that have limited interaction with the agency to join the Priority Enforcement Program.

Local officials bristled at Secure Communities, not only because they objected to the idea of police participating in immigration matters, but because ICE was asking police to hold people solely for removal purposes. That meant that some individuals could end up spending days in jail waiting for ICE to pick them up without even being charged or convicted of a crime.

A federal judge ruled last year that a county in Oregon had violated the rights of a woman it held for immigration purposes because it did so without a warrant.

Under the Priority Enforcement Program, officials say ICE will move away from asking local law enforcement to detain someone for a longer period of time, but will instead ask to be notified if an individual convicted of certain crimes is set to be released.

The program has not yet been fully implemented, and immigration activists say that the new policy still forces police to be involved in immigration enforcement.

But law enforcement leaders are somewhat encouraged that ICE is listening to their concerns. Chief of Police J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Maryland, said his officers do not hold individuals solely for immigration enforcement purposes, but that they do notify ICE whenever serious criminals are set to be released.

"We've never had this happen, but if ICE couldn't get here on the day that the person was being released, we'll release them," said Manger, who is also president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "We can't hold them. Basically, you're falsely imprisoning an individual without legal foundation to hold them."

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