2015-10-14 / News

Group says Chesterfield a 'sanctuary' for illegal immigrants

By Michael Buettner

According to a national group that supports more restrictive policies on immigration, Chesterfield County is now one of a growing number of U.S. communities the group considers “sanctuary cities” for undocumented aliens because they decline to enforce a specific federal immigration policy.

However, the policy that Chesterfield doesn’t enforce was eliminated nearly a year ago, in response to exactly the same concerns that led the county to stop enforcing it.

In a report posted on its website last week, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies said Chesterfield is one of about 340 localities nationwide that are “obstructing immigration enforcement,” mostly because of “policies to ignore ICE detainers.”

ICE is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for identifying, arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants.

One tool ICE has used for a number of years is known as an immigration detainer – a request to a local law enforcement agency or correctional facility to keep an arrested person in custody for up to 48 hours after they’re supposed to be released.

The purpose is to give ICE officials time to investigate the person’s immigration status and make arrangements to transfer the prisoner to federal custody if it turns out he or she is in the country illegally or has a record of convictions on serious crimes.

But several federal courts have ruled that immigration detainers are not mandatory, and local governments that comply with them could be opening themselves up to accusations that they’re violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Like many other local law enforcement agencies around the country, last year the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office, on the advice of the county attorney, stopped enforcing the detainers.

“An ICE detainer request is not issued by the court. Therefore, it is not a legal document allowing the Sheriff's Office to legally detain an inmate for additional time unrelated to the original criminal charge,” Chesterfield Sheriff Karl S. Leonard said in a statement on Monday. “It is for that reason our office only complies with court orders.”

Instead, as Lt. Eric Jones, media relations officer for the Sheriff’s Office, told the Observer last year, “If we have someone with an ICE detainer, we’ll call [ICE] and let them know that they’re going to be released on a certain date. We will put it into the system that there is an ICE detainer on that person. But if their time is done and they’re due to be released, we won’t hold that person just based on the detainer” without additional legal documentation.

That change, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, makes Chesterfield a “sanctuary city.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for CIS, acknowledged that the list her organization obtained from ICE doesn’t use the term “sanctuary city,” which has “no official definition.” Instead, she said, it’s a term she uses to refer to a locality “that obstructs ICE from doing its work.”

In any case, the CIS designation of Chesterfield as a “sanctuary city” is based on a policy that immigration officials have rescinded.

Last November, shortly after Chesterfield stopped enforcing ICE detainers, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a memo discontinuing the government’s Secure Communities program, which included the detainer policy.

While the program had worthy goals, Johnson wrote, it “has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood and is embroiled in litigation. Its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws.”

As a result, Johnson wrote, “I am directing ICE to replace requests for detention (i.e., requests that an agency hold an individual beyond the point at which they would otherwise be released) with requests for notification (i.e., requests that state or local law enforcement notify ICE of a pending release… .)”

If ICE does want a prisoner held in custody, the new policy specifies that the agency provide the local or state authorities with “sufficient probable cause to find that the person is a removable alien, thereby addressing the Fourth Amendment concerns raised in recent federal court decisions.”

Use of ICE detainers was already declining when the policy was changed last year, according to agency records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

According to the clearinghouse’s figures, issuance of ICE detainers peaked in 2011 at a rate of more than 27,000 per month nationally. By early 2014, they had fallen to around half that level, and at the end of last year, the number was down to about 8,000.

Local law enforcement officials and jails across the nation had been honoring the detainers for several years, generally treating them as if they were mandatory legal notices like court orders or arrest warrants.

But in several lawsuits, federal courts ruled that immigration detainers are not mandatory but are simply administrative requests – and local governments that comply with them could be opening themselves up to lawsuits of their own.

According to an opinion issued last year by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania, “immigration detainers do not and cannot compel a state or local law enforcement agency to detain suspected aliens subject to removal.”

By enforcing the detainer, the court said, the local government involved in the lawsuit “cannot use as a defense [the claim] that its own policy did not cause the deprivation of [the prisoner’s] constitutional rights,” and therefore the prisoner may be entitled to sue the local government over his detention.

CIS’ credibility as a source of information on immigration issues has been questioned. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, CIS and two other groups – the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA – were founded by “John Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist who operates a racist publishing company and has written that to maintain American culture, ‘a European-American majority’ is required.”

According to the SPLC, an Alabama-based civil rights watchdog group, CIS “began its life as a FAIR program and continues to produce dubious studies furthering FAIR’s anti-immigration agenda.”

FAIR has been designated as a hate group by the SPLC. In response, CIS accused the SPLC of mounting a smear campaign against the Tanton-founded groups on behalf of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and economic justice advocacy group.


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