Council says ‘no’ to extended immigration detentions

By Sue Misao
Northwest Asian Weekly

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The Metropolitan King County Council adopted legislation Nov. 2 on how the County will honor requests by the federal government for the detention of immigrants in the King County Jail.

The ordinance will continue the County’s effort to detain offenders accused of serious criminal offenses, while refusing extended detention for those accused of minor crimes.

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Larry Gossett

“We want law enforcement to focus its resources on the most dangerous individuals in our communities, not the deportation of those whose only offense may be driving with a broken tail light,” said County Council Chair Larry Gossett, the prime sponsor of the ordinance. “We also want all of the people living and working in Martin Luther King, Jr. County to feel safe in their interaction with law enforcement. This ordinance is a positive step in making this a reality.”

“This legislation does nothing to impede our justice system’s ability to ensure that dangerous people and threats to our communities remain in jail,” said Council Vice Chair Julia Patterson. “The goal of this legislation is public safety, and when you have a significant portion of the community in some parts of King County afraid to engage with law enforcement to report crimes, that puts us all at risk. This policy allows for that trust between our communities and law enforcement, which I believe makes us all safer.”

King County Sheriff John Urquhart agrees with that assessment.

“There are certain people that we don’t want in this country that should be deported,” he said in a recent interview on King County Connects. “The question is how do we separate those out from the people that get swept up in a relatively minor arrest and yet still get detained by ICE and then are sent down to the federal detention center in Tacoma pending either an adjudication of that particular case or being deported? They’re not doing a particularly good job of separating out those two groups. We’re going to have to do it ourselves in King County.”

The sheriff also pointed out that when immigrants fear law enforcement, it hinders law enforcement. “If people are afraid to call the police, if people are afraid to be a good witness to a crime, then I can’t do my job. I can’t keep people safe,” he said. “I believe people are not reporting crimes, are not calling us because they’re afraid they’re going to get deported.”

In 2008, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security to expand its efforts to target noncitizens with serious criminal convictions for arrest and deportation. In conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration developed the Secure Communities program, which allows the sharing of fingerprints collected from local jails for identifying individuals detained to see if they should be investigated for immigration proceedings.

While the Secure Communities program has been modified to focus on those who have been accused of serious crimes, ICE can still request law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants for up to an additional 24 hours beyond when they would normally be processed and released from the detention facility. Many immigrant advocates believe these ‘holds’ are being used to check on the immigration status of those detained, regardless of the offense they were arrested for.

To enhance public safety and public health throughout the county, the council adopted legislation in 2009 that made county services available to all residents regardless of citizenship or immigration status. It codified policies that included King County Sheriff’s deputies being unable to request specific documents, such as passports, alien registration cards, or work permits for the sole purpose of determining whether the individual has violated federal civil immigration laws. In addition, public health could not make immigration status a condition for receiving health services.

The new legislation adopted by the council — which would only be for individuals held in the King County Jail in Seattle or the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent — will expand the 2009 ordinance by limiting those immigrants who could be held for extended detention to individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes such as violent assaults and sex crimes. Defendants would also be detained for mid-level offenses, including residential burglary, and serious traffic offenses such as DUI or reckless driving. ICE would need to provide documented proof of their conviction for the individual to be detained beyond the normal processing period after their arrest.

Immigrants brought in for minor offenses, such as trespassing or warrants for minor traffic offenses, would be processed normally and be eligible for release when a judge orders their release or their case has been resolved.

In response to the King Countys decision, Andrew Muñoz, ICE public affairs officer, issued this statement: “The identification and removal of criminal offenders is ICE’s highest priority and over the past three and half years, ICE has been dedicated to implementing smart, effective reforms to the immigration system that allow it to focus its resources on priority individuals. ICE has implemented clear priorities that focus on convicted criminals and other public safety threats, on those who repeatedly violate our immigration laws. The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”

Several civil rights and immigrant rights advocacy organizations in Washington supported the bill, including American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, Casa Latina, King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence (KCCADV), Northwest Defenders Association, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, OneAmerica, Sound Alliance, University Unitarian Church, Washington CAN!, and Washington Defender Association.

Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, released the following statement:

“OneAmerica applauds the bipartisan majority of the King County Council, especially our champion Councilmember Gossett, for passing one of the strongest bills in the country protecting local communities and immigrant families from devastating ICE hold requests. Once again, Martin Luther King Jr. County is a national leader in creating a policy which allows all residents, regardless of immigration status, to feel comfortable reporting a crime or seeking protection from the police.”

“On a national level our whole immigration policy is antiquated,” said Larry Evans, legislative aid to council member Gossett. “We as King County are not going to play a role in maintaining an unjust policy.”

An amendment to the legislation requires the creation of an oversight group that will review the implementation of the County’s limitations on ICE detainers. The group, which includes county criminal justice representatives, along with immigration advocates and the King County Bar Association, reviews the implementation of the new policies and make any recommendations on needed changes.

The group will also determine whether detainers could be eliminated. The groups first report will be due in January 2015. (end)

Sue Misao can be reached at editor@nwasianweekly.com.

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