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ICE provides local police a way to work around ‘sanctuary’ policies, act as immigration officers

A law enforcement officer walks past an Immigration and Customs Enforcement logo at ICE headquarters in Washington in 2017. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Sheriff’s offices and police departments in jurisdictions that provide “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants will have a new way to work with federal authorities to detain and deport them, immigration authorities said Monday.

The new Warrant Service Officer program, introduced Monday in Pinellas County on Florida’s Gulf Coast, will allow participating sheriffs and police departments “the flexibility to make immigration arrests,” according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The move would allow local authorities to detain criminal suspects beyond the point at which they would have been otherwise released if ICE has requested their detention, essentially giving ICE an extra 48 hours to take them into federal custody.

Selected sheriff’s-office personnel “will be nominated, trained, and approved by ICE to perform certain limited functions of an immigration officer,” within the local jail or correctional facilities, according to a Memorandum of Agreement signed by the agency and Pinellas County on Monday.

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ICE framed the new program as a countermeasure to “sanctuary cities” across the United States that acting director Matthew Albence said “undermine public safety” by adopting policies of non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities. President Trump has repeatedly blasted such jurisdictions, including San Francisco and New York City, where local authorities refuse to respect ICE requests to hold people in local jails on behalf of immigration officials.

President Trump claimed undocumented migrants are being sent to sanctuary cities. But he provided no evidence and his own White House disagreed. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Monday echoed Trump in blaming sanctuary-city policies for crimes that he said would otherwise have been prevented. “Because the jail didn’t honor the detainer, a 65-year-old woman was raped,” Gualtieri said in reference to a Mexican national who had been deported at least 13 times before being convicted of violent assault in Oregon last year.

ICE already has extensive formal agreements — known as 287(g) agreements — with 75 U.S. cities and counties where local law enforcement agencies actively help ICE to arrest and detain people who are in the United States illegally. Those local agencies interview immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally about their citizenship status and use ICE training and computer technology to collaborate with the agency.

The Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program provides for a more limited form of collaborative immigration enforcement, but it could be logistically easier for local sheriff’s departments to adopt. ICE plans to provide a single day of on-site training, and sheriff’s deputies would not be tasked with interviewing detainees to ascertain their citizenship and immigration status.

“The genesis of the WSO program was: How can we offer a cooperative partnership with jurisdictions that reside in states that have local or state policies that limit cooperation with ICE?” said Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesman. In devising the program, ICE realized it could also be useful to rural areas and counties that want to support federal immigration enforcement but lack the resources to send their deputies to lengthy training courses.

Immigrant rights groups and law enforcement agencies in Democratic strongholds have argued that such arrangements unlawfully turn sheriff’s deputies into federal immigration agents and jails into immigrant holding cells. They say such programs are a misuse of resources that detract from larger priorities, such as the pursuit of violent criminals, while also hurting relations with local immigrant communities.

“It really causes a lack of faith, lack of trust in the local police authorities,” said Ramon Carrion, an immigration lawyer in Clearwater, Fla. “The average person needs to feel they can trust the police department. . . . I can see that there’s going to be a reluctance to do so.”

The term “sanctuary city” is generally applied to cities where local authorities refuse to heed ICE’s detention requests and in some cases refuse to communicate detainee information to ICE entirely.

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Trump, who has made stopping illegal immigration his top administration priority, has accused sanctuary cities of releasing “dangerous” criminals into the streets instead of holding them for ICE. And administration officials have on multiple occasions proposed releasing undocumented immigrant detainees into sanctuary cities as retaliation against Trump’s political foes, an idea that ICE officials have said would be costly and difficult to justify.

The Florida legislature last month passed a bill that would bar local authorities from ignoring ICE detainer requests. Immigration experts say the bill was largely preemptive; whether Florida has any cities or counties that would actually be considered sanctuary cities is a matter of debate. But the state is home to one of the largest populations of immigrants in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Institute, and home to some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

ICE said that a representative of the governor’s office attended the WSO signing ceremony with the Pinellas County sheriff on Monday.

“I think they see the political benefit of jumping on the Trump bus,” Carrion, the immigration attorney, said of the local authorities. “But this problem filters down, it filters up, it filters sideways — it has all sorts of other ramifications. I think the sheriff’s department will rue the day they signed this agreement.”