SEATTLE — In a rare appearance at a King County committee meeting Tuesday, the head of the agency charged with enforcing immigration laws in the Seattle region said a proposed ordinance that would require county jailers to stop fully cooperating with her office raises serious public safety concerns.
The ordinance in question would change the way county jailers now handle “hold” requests for immigrant inmates — both legal and in the U.S. without legal permission — who are deportable from this country.
The county would honor so-called detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement only for immigrants convicted of serious or violent crimes as defined under state law, while disregarding those for immigrants who have committed lesser offenses, such as indecent exposure or criminal trespassing.
Nathalie Asher, field office director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations, told council members that immigrants convicted of minor offenses could well have a “more significant” criminal background and go on to commit further crime.
Detainers are meant to ensure they “are not released into our community,” she said.
For the foreign-born population, “We have the bigger story on that person ... that you may not have,” including any criminal prosecution for violations of federal immigration law, she said.
“That is really the role that Congress has put on ICE — to vet and make those determinations.”
Rarely do U.S. immigration officials insert themselves in such local policy matters, and Asher’s appearance at the meeting suggests how strongly the feds consider this potential loss of cooperation from the state’s most populous county.
Asher was part of a panel of immigration experts who testified before the County Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee during its second hearing Tuesday on the proposed ordinance.
Dozens of residents also spoke for and against the proposed measure — offering at times moving testimony about how the program disrupts immigrant families or about the crimes committed by immigrants living in the country illegally.
Under the program known as Secure Communities, ICE checks the fingerprints of all inmates booked into jails and prisons against a national immigration database.
It then places 48-hour holds, or detainers, on those considered deportable, allowing ICE to take those immigrants into custody once they’ve been released from jail and begin enforcing immigration laws.
Data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at the State University of New York at Syracuse for a two-month period in 2012 showed that 50 percent of the time, the end result is deportation for detainees from the Seattle region.
Immigrant advocates have long pushed to change this hold-for-pickup practice, arguing that it undermines immigrant community trust in law enforcement and breaks up families when parents and breadwinners are taken away.
Opponents, meanwhile warn that the county might be exposing itself to liability if immigrants who are released go on to commit more serious crimes.
Several cities and counties across the country have similar measures in place — some limiting the requests they honor to serious offenses, like King County would under the ordinance, while others, like Cook County in Illinois and California’s Santa Clara County, honor no ICE detainers at all.
King County’s ordinance would require ICE agents to show in writing that the person was previously convicted of a homicide or a violent, serious or sex offense at any time in the past 10 years. The county would not honor detainers for juveniles.
In a letter to the council’s legal counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District cited 13 ICE detainer cases it prosecuted in the past year involving immigrants with violent criminal histories who would not have been held under the proposed ordinance, either because their offense didn’t qualify or was too old.
In response to concerns from immigrant-advocate groups, ICE in December tweaked its guidelines to focus more closely on serious offenses, as part of the agency’s emphasis on criminal immigrants who pose a danger to national security.
“A detainer does not always equal a deportation,” but is the next step in the vetting process for her agents, Asher said.
And just because the county would not honor a hold request does not mean that person would escape ICE’s radar, she warned.
Agents will track that person to his or her community, if necessary, which could lead to immigration problems for those with whom the person associates — family members and friends whose own immigration status might be in question.
“We’d like to minimize that,” said Asher. “We don’t want to be a hindrance in the local community ... or appear to be out conducting raids.”