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What happened when a pro-Trump county discovered it was a ‘sanctuary city’

The Coffee Pot is a popular roadside attraction in Bedford, Pa., where residents and officials were surprised to learn that the rural county was considered a “sanctuary city." (Todd C. Frankel/The Washington Post)

BEDFORD, Pa. — The sheriff didn’t know what to make of it. Local politicians and residents were stunned. Word was spreading throughout the Appalachian mountain valley that this county, a place so red that Donald Trump walked away with 83 percent of the presidential vote, was considered a “sanctuary city” — a protective refuge where local law enforcement officials refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

"Everyone here was saying, ‘What?'" Bedford County Sheriff Charwin Reichelderfer said. “It was utter confusion.”

The sheriff and others looked it up. And there it was: Bedford County was on the same “sanctuary city” lists inhabited by big coastal cities such as New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The listings, published separately by the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, two conservative groups with strict immigration views, meant Bedford was accused of flouting one of President Trump’s most debated policies. Shortly after entering the White House, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to study how to cut off federal funding for localities that do not assist federal immigration officials.

Trump’s claim that sanctuary cities ‘breed crime’

How Bedford County ended up on the sanctuary city lists highlights the difficulty with the broad-brush labels used to identify attitudes and fears about immigration, even in places where immigration would hardly appear to be a pressing topic.

In Bedford, as news of the lists worked its way through the county, residents called local officials and posted on social media.

“I am at a loss for words. Someone tell me this is not right,” one Bedford resident wrote on Facebook after learning about the county's “sanctuary city” status.

“Can you please explain how Bedford County ended up on the Sanctuary City listing and why?” wrote another.

State Sen. Jesse Topper, who represents the county, responded, “We’re looking into this to find you an answer.”

What exactly are ‘sanctuary cities’ in immigration policy?

Bedford County, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, is an unlikely location for a sanctuary city. Almost everyone living here -- 98 percent -- is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Less than 1 percent of the county is foreign-born, far below the national rate of 13.2 percent.

“We don’t deal with other nationalities that much,” Reichelderfer said. He noted that the local Chinese buffet employed Asian workers and nearby fruit orchards tended to hire Hispanic migrant workers for the harvests. But that was about it. “We’re in the woods here.”

Officials said they doubt there would be support for a sanctuary city designation in Bedford. “That would not be popular with locals,” county district attorney Bill Higgins said, laughing a bit. “That would be a quick way to get voted out of office, like signing your political death warrant.”

The ‘sanctuary city’ on the front line of the fight over Trump’s immigration policy

During the warmer months, tourist flock to Bedford, a community centered on agriculture, to see the county's 14 covered bridges, stay at the renowned Omni Bedford Springs Resort or visit historic sites. A plaque in town shows where George Washington reviewed his troops during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

Immigration is a hot-button issue here because residents are worried about immigrants taking local jobs or soaking up public resources, two of the main complaints lobbed in the fraught national battle over immigration. According to Higgins, Bedford's opposition to the sanctuary-city status stems from locals' desire for respect of the law. It's one reason his office does not offer plea deals with reduced terms to the very few defendants it sees who are undocumented immigrants. Higgins said he does not want to negotiate a plea deal with someone “committing an ongoing crime.”

“They're not honoring our law from the very first moment they stepped on the ground here,” Higgins said. And being a sanctuary city means not following the law.

Sanctuary laws are under scrutiny again after a murder in San Francisco brought the city's policy into the national spotlight. (Video: Jayne W. Orenstein and Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

Higgins traced the origins of the county’s sanctuary city designation to a 2014 report from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. The report examined whether Pennsylvania counties cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain suspects for up to 48 hours when their immigration status was in doubt. The extra time allows federal immigration agents time to pick up the suspect. Whether police honor these detainer requests is at the heart of many sanctuary city designations.

The Temple report noted, correctly, that Bedford County’s jail policy was to not hold suspects for immigration authorities, because the county was worried about liability. In the Temple report, the county appeared to be acting like a sanctuary city.

But, Higgins and others point out, Bedford’s jail has always called federal agents when it had a suspected undocumented immigrant in custody. “I was taken aback when I read that,” Higgins said.

Higgins called the county commission. Chairman Josh Lang already knew about the problem. “I saw the uproar on Facebook,” Lang said.

How sanctuary cities work, and how Trump’s executive order might affect them

At a county commission meeting last week, Lang announced that the county jail’s policy had been changed to emphasize that the jail would cooperate with federal immigration agents and detain suspects as needed.

Lang described the sanctuary city reports as “a complete distortion of the truth” and said he and other officials were working to get Bedford removed from those lists.

Without the national furor over sanctuary cities, Bedford may never have realized its presence on those lists. Local officials said they were not aware of the jail policy, which implemented by a previous administration. The Temple University report noted that from 2011 to 2013, before the county stopped cooperating with federal agents, Bedford issued just eight immigration retainers. Higgins said his office sees at most three to four such cases a year.

That did not appear to temper concerns among some residents at the commission meeting that undocumented immigrants might still flock here, expecting protection.

“How are [you] going to deal with, in the event, that illegals would be surfing the Internet looking for a place to go in the state of Pennsylvania. How are you going to handle if they come to Bedford County?” asked one resident.

Lang had a quick response. Those visitors, he said, would be in for a surprise.