Opinion: Defiance of Sanctuary Law Puts Families and Communities at Risk

by Rebecca Saldaña

What happens when the very people paid to enforce our laws willfully violate them?

This is the alarming situation reported in a recent Crosscut article about several law enforcement agencies committed to defying a state law that took effect last May.

The new Keep Washington Working law was passed to protect the rights and dignity of all people in Washington state, where immigrants make up over 16% of the workforce and 15% of all business owners are born in foreign countries. Part of the law restricts law enforcement from collaborating with immigration enforcement officials in civil immigration enforcement efforts.

Specifically, the law enforcement agencies highlighted by Crosscut objected to:

  • A prohibition on allowing immigration officials to interview individuals in custody in jail.
  • A prohibition on providing immigration officials with information on individuals in custody or about someone’s impending release.
  • A prohibition on holding people in jail after a court has ordered them released, pursuant to a request from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

Loren Culp, police chief of Republic, has publicly declared that a person’s undocumented status “makes them a criminal.” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich claims Keep Washington Working would let dangerous criminals go free.

These views are alarming on multiple levels.

First, under federal law, simply being in the U.S. without authorization is not a criminal offense but rather a civil matter. Second, even if it were a criminal offense, the mere suspicion of a crime does not make someone a criminal. So, it is a matter of no small concern that some law enforcement officials in our state appear not to understand the laws they are required to uphold.

A recent study found local jails collaborated on nearly half of ICE arrests in Washington between October 2014 and May 2018, even though 23% of those arrested had no criminal convictions and many others had convictions only for minor offenses, like traffic violations.

Instead of making communities safer, illegal collaboration with immigration authorities fosters fear and mistrust of law enforcement. Immigrant survivors of domestic violence are more reluctant to report abuse and other crimes, and key witnesses are reluctant to get involved in any process they fear might lead to their deportation. Not only does this create a risk for further harm, it also prevents abusers and other criminals from being held accountable for their crimes.

The Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office recognize the problems with assisting federal immigration enforcement. Both have policies in place prohibiting local assistance in civil immigration enforcement, and neither has expressed an unwillingness to uphold the new law. Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best co-chairs the nationwide Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force whose principles acknowledge that communities are safer when immigrants feel safe, and immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility. In 2018, Best spoke to the Latino Advisory Council on the importance of the police protecting everyone in a community regardless of immigration status. Similarly, in a 2018 interview with Unite Seattle Magazine, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknect discussed the importance of ensuring that people feel safe reporting crimes and seeking protection.

Franklin County Sheriff J.D. Raymond, meanwhile, told Crosscut that his agency is “just going to do our job and abide by the law.” But it’s unclear to which law he refers, since he also admits to violations of the Keep Washington Working law, including allowing immigration officials to interview people at the jail and notifying them of a person’s release.

Ferry County Sheriff Ray Maycumber insists that not complying with an ICE request to detain an incarcerated person being released would violate federal law, while Sheriff Knezovich implies collaboration with immigration enforcement is required by the oath he took to “uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws thereof.”

Contrary to these beliefs, however, federal law does not require state and local law enforcement to facilitate the priorities of federal immigration officials. In fact, the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects states from federal efforts to commandeer state government entities to enforce federal laws. So while ICE is authorized by federal statute to request someone’s detention, federal law does not require state and local law enforcement to cooperate. ICE’s own website refers to the detainers as requests, not orders.

Furthermore, the practice of incarcerating someone beyond their release date on suspicion of civil immigration violations has been ruled unconstitutional by numerous federal courts because it violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. After a federal court in Oregon ruled on this issue in 2014, most counties in Washington discontinued holding people on ICE detainers.

The holdouts among our state and local law enforcement agencies need to align with the majority of law enforcement officials across our state who realize their lawful duty is not to assist federal officials but to correctly interpret and enforce state laws—and that ignoring or violating those laws is unlawful.

Rebecca Saldaña is the State Senator for Washington’s 37th District and lives in Rainier Beach/Skyway with her husband and two youngest children