September 2013 Bar Bulletin
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September 2013 Bar Bulletin

Change Needed in King County Jail's Detainer Policy

By Shankar Narayan


Numerous civil rights and immigrant rights organizations are seeking an ordinance that prevents prolonged detentions of immigrants in the King County Jail based on federal government requests, a practice that reduces public safety in the process. The organizations are urging that the county honor voluntary requests by federal immigration authorities to detain individuals only if an individual poses a real public safety threat.

Currently, jail officials can honor requests from the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to detain individuals beyond the time they would otherwise be released, even when those individuals have no criminal record. The requests apply to persons whom ICE believes are not U.S. citizens and whom it seeks to investigate for possible placement in removal proceedings. These "ICE holds" may apply even for persons with no charges or minor infractions, and regardless of any impacts on their families.

This practice is harmful and counterproductive. Police rely on community trust to maintain public safety in King County. When local law enforcement officers serve as agents of immigration enforcement, immigrants are deterred from reporting crimes as victims or witnesses, and the police lose their eyes and ears in the community. Citizens who have immigrant or undocumented family members are also more hesitant to contact the police or other authorities.

The net impact is to undermine public safety, and this is why some of our local law enforcement leaders — such as King County Sheriff John Urquhart and Seattle interim Police Chief Jim Pugel — support honoring ICE holds only when an individual poses a true public safety threat.

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of federal authorities, not local law enforcement, and it should be kept separate from the criminal justice system. For every individual booked into King County Jail on criminal charges, the courts impose and oversee appropriate punishment. And we as attorneys know that the criminal justice system has elaborate safeguards to protect public safety.

A policy sensibly focusing ICE hold requests on those who pose public safety threats — which is in fact the federal government's stated goal for the ICE detainer program — does not release anyone into the community who is not otherwise eligible to be released under the criminal justice system's safeguards. If those safeguards need strengthening, we should consider doing so. But using the immigration system to make an end run around the criminal justice system — a tactic unavailable when a U.S. citizen is involved — should be equally off-limits for non-citizens.

Further, county officials' routine detainment of community members on behalf of ICE puts an unnecessary financial burden on King County residents, who are being forced to foot the bill for a federal law enforcement matter. The County is currently paying $1.8 million a year to do ICE's job by honoring all ICE hold requests. It is not the job of local governments to fund the federal government's immigration enforcement responsibilities.

Buttressing the push for reform is a recent report by University of Washington researchers. "Immigration Detainer Requests in King County: Costs and Consequences" found that in 2011 King County's practices extended jail time for individuals subject to those practices by an average of nearly 30 days and disproportionately impacted Latinos. The report found that county residents were being funneled directly into ICE custody upon their release, regardless of whether they had been convicted of a crime or the seriousness of any conviction, or whether they were a longtime permanent resident.

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