As part of its promise to make the nation’s capital a welcoming place for immigrants, the District has vowed it won’t turn over arrestees to federal immigration agents unless that person is a convicted violent offender.

But despite its status as a “sanctuary city,” the District finds itself powerless to shield many undocumented immigrants who get arrested — even those accused of minor crimes — from possible deportation.

The issue recently sparked frustration among city leaders and anger among activists when a man suspected of theft was taken from the D.C. courthouse last month and handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Benjamin Ordoñez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was accused of stealing a purse containing $200. He had just been released by a judge and told to return for his trial.

“He never walked out of the court building,” said his court-
appointed attorney, Lucas Dansie.

That’s because, unlike in other cities, the District’s judicial system is run not only by local agencies, but also through federal partners that do not adhere to the city’s sanctuary policies. Prosecutors and workers who conduct pre- and post-trial supervision of arrestees are federal employees. So are U.S. marshals, who provide security and transport inmates — and took Ordoñez into custody after his court hearing.

Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety, said gaining more local control of the justice system would require an act of Congress and possibly a change to the home-rule law. He said “tragic incidents” such as Ordoñez’s case “highlight the extent of the impact that D.C. not being a state — not being in control of our justice system — has on D.C. residents.”


Benjamin Ordonez, 34 (Ashwini Jaisingh)

Donahue said that in most localities, unlike in the District, justice leaders are “officials who are elected into power and who reflect the voters’ values.” He said Ordoñez’s case “reflects changing national policies in the aggressiveness of immigrant enforcement.”

Robert Brandt, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Office, said the marshals were following agency policy, which “dictates that we hold individuals wanted on lawful warrants and detainers including those issued by ICE.”

Ordoñez, who friends said lived in the city for 15 years and worked in construction, was arrested by D.C. police on Aug. 26 in the theft of a purse from a woman in a downtown hotel lobby. A police report says the victim saw Ordoñez, 34, with the handbag, and hotel security found her money in his pockets. The Virginia woman did not return calls seeking comment.

Ordoñez was charged with misdemeanor theft. D.C. police said they took no concern with learning about or acting on Ordoñez’s immigration status. The following day, he was brought to the D.C. Superior Court building for his initial appearance.

After he was taken into custody by U.S. marshals, Ordoñez was moved to a jail in Norfolk. Jail officials on Friday said he had been removed from the jail. They did not provide further details.

Immigration advocates say that what happened to Ordoñez, and to others like him, is tantamount to a bait-and-switch that belies the city’s sales pitch as a sanctuary city and gives false hope to its undocumented residents that they won’t be targeted for removal.

Advocates say that the allegation of a nonviolent crime should not imperil a person’s immigration status and that it is contrary to the District’s rules governing a sanctuary city.

The complicated nature of the District’s bifurcated justice system has confused both advocates and others, who this month put misplaced blame on D.C. police.

“We cannot let ICE come into our community and kidnap our loved ones and neighbors with help from DC police,” the Action Network tweeted. “This goes directly against Mayor Muriel Bowser’s promises that the DC police do not cooperate with ICE, and that DC is a sanctuary city.”

D.C. police quickly tweeted that the Metropolitan Police Department, as its formally known, “did not honor an ICE detainer and was not involved in any aspect of the enforcement of an immigration detainer for this individual or any others. . . . MPD has long-standing policies to ensure officers are not involved in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

Brandt, the U.S. Marshals Office spokesman, said marshals conduct criminal background checks on every defendant coming through for a D.C. Superior Court hearing. He said the agency does not track how many people it has turned over to immigration authorities from the District’s courthouse.

In addition to the marshals office, other federal agencies operating in D.C. Superior Court also may notify authorities about a person’s immigration status or conduct background checks that automatically flag ICE. ICE agents can use the “lockup list,” a publicly posted list of defendants going through initial appearances, and conduct background checks.

An ICE official said the agency “learned of Ordoñez’s arrest from his booking information and lodged the detainer with the U.S. Marshals Service.” Arrestees are booked by D.C. police but additional information is added to the files by federal employees at the courthouse.

Ashwini Jaisingh, a law student at American University who is working with the group Friends of Benjamin, said Ordoñez’s family is in Guatemala. She said he had carved out a life here playing soccer and as a salsa dancer and instructor. The circumstances of how he arrived in the United States were not immediately clear.

Ayla Bailey, who is friends with Ordoñez, accused the District of “passing the buck” by blaming federal officials and said at the very least the mayor should take stronger positions in demanding or seeking changes to keep the spirit of the city’s sanctuary law intact.

“D.C. should be stopping this from happening,” Bailey said. “I believe it is their responsibility to set up a system that is going to protect residents from these kinds of injustices.”