Homeland Security officials on Monday unveiled the administration’s first list of law enforcement agencies that refused to detain jailed immigrants beyond their release dates so that the federal government could take them into custody and try to deport them.
Federal officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in a conference call with reporters, said local agencies, including some in Maryland and Virginia, failed to honor 206 detention requests from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.
President Trump in January ordered Homeland Security to issue a weekly list of crimes committed by noncitizen immigrants and to identify agencies that refused to hold those people in jail on civil immigration-violation charges until federal agents could pick them up.
“These numbers will continue to go up,” a Homeland Security official said. “There is a clear public safety issue here that will only be further illuminated as we go forward.”
Advocates for immigrants say it is unconstitutional for local police to detain someone for a civil deportation proceeding when the judge in their criminal case has ordered them released.
“This is part of an overall strategy to try to scare jurisdictions into becoming deportation agents,” said Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “And the truth is that jurisdictions have the legal right to refuse to become entangled with the federal immigration enforcement system.”
Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from what are called sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, but officials said they hoped such jurisdictions would start cooperating with federal agents instead. Officials identified 118 such agencies in the report Monday, though they cautioned it was preliminary. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) estimates that 600 jurisdictions limit their cooperation with ICE, in most cases because they do not want immigrants to fear the police or be deported for minor traffic offenses.
Avideh Moussavian, a staff lawyer at NILC, said police often cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies on criminal matters but emphasized that immigration violations are civil, not criminal.
“They’ve created this totally false narrative that somehow local law enforcement is obstructing their work because they’re not holding people when the local law enforcement authorities have no basis for holding that person any longer,” Moussavian said.
Homeland Security officials cautioned that the report offered only a snapshot of a week’s worth of detainers — requests from ICE to a law enforcement agency to hold an immigrant for up to 48 hours after they are released on bail so that immigration agents can take them into custody and seek to deport them.
The report did not identify the alleged criminals affected by the declined detainers, but officials said many had been arrested for serious crimes, including aggravated assault and homicide. A Washington Post analysis, however, showed that fewer than half of the people had been convicted of a crime.
Most detainers were issued for citizens of Mexico, followed by Honduras.
Some local law enforcement agencies suggested Monday that the agency’s methodology is flawed. More than 60 percent of the declined detainers were from Travis County in Texas, which on Feb. 1 adopted a policy limiting its cooperation with ICE.
Maj. Wes Priddy, of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency does detain criminals convicted of serious crimes for immigration officials.
But he said his department does not turn over people awaiting trial.
“We do honor ICE detainers. But we do it selectively and in a manner which we can abide by our policy,” Priddy said, adding that in the past, immigration officials have deported people before trial, depriving defendants of their day in court and, in some cases, denying closure to crime victims. “We want to make sure that justice is served on the local level as well.”
Patrick Lacefield, a government spokesman in Montgomery County, Md., which also has a declined detainer on the list, said officials in the county cooperate with ICE and have nothing in their records matching what the federal officials have on their list.
“We looked in our records, and we don’t have either a detainer received on that date or a detainer declined on that date,” Lacefield said. “If we had a name of who it was, we could do a more thorough search. On the face of it, it doesn’t really support the information that they have.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the report suggested that ICE may not be effectively tracking detainers it files with local agencies.
Some detainers were issued as far back as 2010 or 2014 but were logged as declined just a few weeks ago, apparently because ICE had not tracked them before then.
At the same time, Vaughan said, the list is an attempt to pressure localities to change their policies and inform the public that sanctuary cities sometimes release serious criminals.
When he signed the Jan. 25 executive order intensifying deportation efforts, Trump said jurisdictions put U.S. citizens at risk by releasing criminals who should be deported and who, in some cases, commit additional crimes after being released from jail.