Feds Take Second Shot at Using Local Officers For Immigration Enforcement

by Colin Maloney

On Tuesday, December 8th, federal authorities are going to again attempt to get King County agencies to act as immigration enforcement. This, despite repeated action on the part of the County Council  in rejecting this role.

In April 2012, the federal “Secure Communities” program went into effect in Washington state, essentially making local law enforcement officers an extension of federal immigration.

Fingerprints taken at the time of an arrest would be sent to a federal database, and forwarded to the federal government. In most cases, if those fingerprints appeared in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) records, they would send an administrative request to the local jurisdiction to hold that person for up to 48 hours beyond when they would otherwise have been eligible for release.

The local response was swift, with community groups reacting with alarm that individuals, already cleared for release through a judicial process, would be detained without charge and without the benefit of a hearing or counsel. Advocates held a press conference, highlighting the problems already evident with the federal program:

“Since its inception in 2008 under the George W. Bush Administration, S Comm has grown in scale and has contributed to record numbers of deportations throughout the U.S. In spite of the supposed intended goal of apprehending convicted felons, S Comm has led to an atmosphere of intimidation and racial profiling with many dragnet raids targeting communities of color throughout the country. These raids, often brutal and heavy-handed continue operating with absolute impunity with little to no regard for the civil and human rights of the communities targeted.”

Community members and advocates organized throughout the state, calling on local officials to refuse to collaborate with federal immigration, highlighting the loss of trust these actions caused between community members and local law enforcement. If any interaction with a local police officer or sheriff deputy could result in detention or deportation, community members would be hesitant to report crimes or act as witnesses, even if they themselves were the victims.

State legislation to prohibit this cooperation was proposed, as was legislation at the King County Council. Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, an ordinance was introduced in 2013 to limit the circumstances where local agencies would comply with these requests, often referred to as “detainers.” After a lengthy committee process, chaired by Republican Kathy Lambert, who opposed the changes, the Council passed legislation late that year restricting the practice. Advocates cheered the victory, and the ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott, and Larry Phillips, was signed by Executive Dow Constantine.

After a US District Court in Oregon found that this practice violated individuals’ constitutional rights in 2014, the Council revisited the issue and amended the ordinance, prohibiting the practice altogether. Counties across Oregon, Colorado, and Washington rapidly began changing their policies around these detention requests. By the end of 2014, the “Secure Communities” program was formally terminated by the Obama administration.

However, federal Immigration officials soon rolled out a “new” effort, dubbed thePriority Enforcement Program to again use local officers to detain people without trial. Tuesday afternoon, two Homeland Security/ICE officials will be “briefing” the Law, Justice, and Emergency Management Committee, and will likely be looking to weaken or “work around” the intent of these strong ordinances passed by the Council. Philip Miller, an ICE Assistant Director for Field Operations, and one of the officials participating in the briefing, recently testified before Congress about trying to convince local jurisdictions to again do ICE’s work.

“‘I think our secretary is taking very proactive steps through the priority enforcement program to try to bring a number of locations that aren’t honoring the detention retainers’ (sic) back into cooperating with the federal government, he said.”

Community members, advocates, and those who oppose racial profiling and law enforcement overreach, should be very concerned that ICE is trying to roll back work done here locally. Councilmembers Gossett and McDermott, who sponsored the initial legislation, sit on this committee and need to hear that no changes should be made to local policy or practice. Councilmembers Rod Dembowski and Kathy Lambert also sit on this committee and also should hear from those who support the decision that the County has already made on this matter.

It is an unfortunate fact that progress does not only move in one direction, and that we must not only advocate for positive change, but we must also remain vigilant and protect the victories already won. Tuesday afternoon in Council Chambers offers us an opportunity to do just that.