The King County Council is considering a new ordinance that would end the practice of automatically complying with federal requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants in jail.
The county’s current policy is consistent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Secure Communities program, where every arrestee’s fingerprints are automatically screened by the Department of Homeland Security to determine if these persons could be subject to deportation.
If flagged, ICE can request that a local jail hold the arrestee for an additional 48 hours so that agents can transport the suspect to a detention center.
Under the proposed ordinance, introduced June 13 by Councilmember Larry Gossett, county authorities would only honor ICE detainer requests for people with serious or violent felony convictions.
Toby Guevin, senior policy and civic engagement manager at OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Seattle, said intertwining civil immigration enforcement with the criminal justice system does more harm than good, sweeping low-level offenders into the mix at high cost to local government, families and law enforcement.
“Really what we’re saying is that immigration enforcement is not the role of local jails,” Guevin said. The proposed law “would limit a voluntary practice that in effect tears families apart and wastes taxpayer money,” he said.
Proponents of the ordinance say that the current practice of fulfilling all ICE requests decays trust in law enforcement, particularly in Latino communities. A University of Washington report released in March found that 1 in 4 Latinos booked in county jails were transferred to ICE.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart supports the ordinance and said it would enhance public safety: If people are afraid to report crime for fear of deportation, the police can’t protect the public, and the agency can’t operate successfully.
“Anything we can do to reduce that fear and reduce that distrust, I support, and I think this is a good way to do that,” he said.
According to the study, which analyzed 2011 data, nearly two-thirds of those flagged by ICE in King County were not charged with a felony offense, and 1 in 8 were not charged with any crime at all.
Those subject to ICE detainers stayed in jail about 30 days longer than those without, and researchers estimate that limiting cooperation with ICE detainers could save the county nearly $2 million a year.
County Councilmember Jane Hague announced her support for the ordinance at an assembly organized by Sound Alliance, a Tukwila-based faith and labor coalition, where the audience heard testimony from those affected by ICE deportations — young children separated from parents without warning, deportations following minor traffic violations and a woman who called to report domestic violence, only to be arrested and transferred to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.
Suzanne Grogan of Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church spoke at the Sound Alliance assembly and has attended more than 14 vigils at the Tacoma detention center, meeting with visitors and learning about their experiences.
“Until we get our broken immigration system figured out, we need to find a much more humane way of dealing with this,” she said.
A cohort of organizations has been working for about two years to develop and advocate for the ordinance, including the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and ACLU of Washington.
Other cities and counties have also limited ICE detainers, including New York City, San Francisco County in California and Cook County in Illinois.
The ordinance is expected to be up for vote before the full council by early July.