Counties Defy Feds, Vow Not to Detain Immigrants on ICE’s Behalf

Both Santa Clara County and Washington, D.C. are finding ways around the federal government's Secure Communities deportation program.

By Julianne Hing Oct 25, 2011

Cooperating with the federal government’s immigration enforcement agenda may be mandatory for local law enforcement, but localities are finding ways around the federal government’s programs.

Last week northern California’s Santa Clara County became the latest locality to pass an ordinance that will likely curb the number of its residents who get handed over to federal immigration authorities through the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities. That same week, Washington, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray signed an executive order reaffirming the rights of D.C. residents not to get harassed by law enforcement officers about their immigration status.

These announcements are the latest in a string of similar moves from other counties which have attempted to push back on the federal government’s interpretation of its Secure Communities program. S-Comm, as the initiative is often called, allows immigration officials to check the fingerprints of everyone booked into a local or county jail against federal immigration records. Even if the person is wrongfully arrested or never charged with any crime, they become subject to deportation if they’re found to be undocumented. If a match is found, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — if it doesn’t already have an agent posted inside the local jail — will call local law enforcement and ask them to detain a person while ICE agents come down to the jail to take them away for detention proceedings.

Santa Clara County has now determined that enforcing such detainers for ICE are "requests" from the federal government which it’s under no obligation to carry out. It’s further argued that holding onto people in county jails for ICE is a costly financial burden that localities, which are not reimbursed by the federal government, should not to have enforce.

"Today is historic," said Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa on the day of the vote, New America Media reported. "We now have the most progressive policy in this field, and the whole nation will be looking at us as Santa Clara County makes it official: we don’t do ICE’s job."

Washington, D.C. Mayor Gray signed an executive order that also promised to stop the practice of holding onto people for ICE longer than the legally mandated 48-hour period, which localities have done as a courtesy to the federal agency.

"We’re not going to be instruments of federal law when it comes to immigration status," Gray said last week, Washington D.C.’s WTOP reported.

Such resistance comes as the federal government is pushing harder and harder to limit states’ attempts to opt out of the once-optional program. This past summer, after the governors of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts all attempted to opt out or distance their states from the program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responded by canceling every contract it had drawn up with participating states. DHS argued that the program was not optional after all.

The program has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s deportation agenda, and been a primary driver of the administration’s record-breaking deportation rates.

While the loudest resistance to the program has come from immigrant rights advocates, local law enforcement officers have also been vocal in their criticisms. Traditionally, immigration violations are civil offenses that are not enforced by local law enforcement.

But that’s no longer the case.

The school of thinking among a growing number of law enforcement experts, and not just immigrant advocates, is that forcing police to help the federal government enforce immigration law breaks down trust in a community, and hampers police officers’ ability to do their primary job of ensuring public safety.

Partnerships between local law enforcement and immigration officials "creates the very distinct impression that police are agents of ICE," said Stephen Smith, the organizing director of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "And if you think the police are agents and you are part of a mixed status family, you don’t call the police and you don’t report crimes on your own."

Earlier this summer San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessy, citing exactly this reasoning, announced that he’d no longer honor ICE detainer requests for people who were arrested by not charged with a crime; those who were victims of domestic violence and those with no prior criminal record. Last month Illinois’ Cook County, where the cost of detaining people on behalf of ICE amounts to $15.7 million dollars a year, passed a local ordinance similar to Santa Clara County’s. Smith credited local law enforcement officials in Illinois and around the country for providing leadership on the issue to get these ordinances passed.

"The unsung heroes in this are the law enforcement officials who are providing legitimacy to claims that if anything, these programs make us less safe, not more safe," Smith said.

While other attempts to end participation in Secure Communities have not been successful, localities have been able to assert this kind of resistance so far.

"I think what sheriffs and what localities are doing in setting this trend is totally within their right and within their scope of local jurisdiction," said B. Loewe, a spokesperson with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is organizing to dismantle Secure Communities. "How their agencies respond to [detainer] requests is within their purview."

"Jurisdictions who ignore detainers bear the risk of possible dangers to public safety," ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen said this summer, US News reported.

According to Smith, such framing is a disingenuous ploy, since local ordinances that limit localities’ cooperation with detainer requests do not bar the federal government from picking up the tab for these costs.

Secure Communities is slated to be operational across the entire country by 2013.