Western Pa. counties shrug off ICE requests to hold illegals in jail
The slaying of a woman in San Francisco by an accused gun-toting illegal immigrant who was deported multiple times has critics nationwide deriding so-called “sanctuary” communities — state, county and municipal governments that won't aid federal agents looking for undocumented foreigners.
A Tribune-Review investigation found half of Pennsylvania counties have adopted policies similar to San Francisco's, and it's not because they favor unlawful immigration.
They are declining detainers issued by the federal Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, to temporarily hold inmates suspected of entering the country illegally. Those detainers help ICE agents round up immigration scofflaws in jails or police holding cells by giving them 48 hours to investigate someone's citizenship status.
A series of legal setbacks in federal courts in Pennsylvania and nationwide have exposed local law enforcement agencies and taxpayers to expensive litigation arising from civil rights issues with such detainment, officials told the Trib.
“We're not a ‘sanctuary' community,” said Beau Sneddon, deputy warden of operations at the Butler County Jail. “We recognize all judicial orders that ICE brings us. Our only problem is with the detainers to hold someone for 48 hours, which don't go through a judicial process.”
Sneddon cited a March 4, 2014, ruling by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia that found Lehigh County violated the constitutional rights of an American citizen held past a possible release date because of an ICE detainer.
His detainer, the judges found, was only a request for help, not a binding order such as a federal warrant signed by a magistrate, and local governments could face monetary damages for violating the rights of criminal suspects and jail inmates, not ICE.
Although a written policy prohibits Butler County officials from allowing ICE agents on prison property or even communicating with the federal department, Sneddon said that applies only to detainers. The county keeps ICE informed about suspected undocumented immigrants before their release.
In Western Pennsylvania, Armstrong, Blair, Clarion, Erie, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties have joined Butler officials in shrugging off ICE requests, according to a study released in March by the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the American Civil Liberties Union and a pair of Philadelphia-based advocacy groups — the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and Latino immigrants rights organization JUNTOS.
Lawrence County officials were among those who did not respond to the Trib investigation.
“ICE, they threw the county under the bus with their policies,” said Westmoreland County Prison Warden John Walton. “They sent detainers asking us to hold someone, but when push comes to shove, it won't be ICE with the legal liability problem. It'll be Westmoreland County. What are we supposed to do if an inmate sues us?”
Unlike San Francisco, and despite some written policies, officials representing the above counties said they will inform ICE if a person suspected of being an illegal immigrant is being released — but most cooperation ends there.
Other municipal, county and state agencies are scrambling to make sense of the evolving legal landscape. Past written policies extended to Allegheny County's police and jailers, for example, are being scrutinized by attorneys in light of the 2014 ruling.
“In the interim, requests for ICE detainers are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” said county spokeswoman Amie Downs.
The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the federal government has the sole responsibility to deport illegal immigrants, not state or local officials. That decision is cited by cities and counties as the major factor in their policies, which have led as many as 200 to be labeled “sanctuary” communities by anti- and pro-immigration groups.
Detainer policies returned to public light when Francisco Sanchez, 45, a repeat drug offender and illegal immigrant from Mexico, was charged July 6 in the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle, 32, at a popular San Francisco pier. She was killed with a gun stolen from a federal park police officer's car.
San Francisco's policy of not notifying ICE when releasing detainees led to finger-pointing by city officials and ICE over why an illegal immigrant deported five times was set loose on the streets. He had been held by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department on a decade-old drug charge when released.
Without enough agents or money to evict the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America, ICE has prioritized deportations of convicted or suspected criminals, especially those who commit violent offenses.
That policy puts federal agents in regular contact with local law enforcement, and detainers once were their primary means to hold illegal immigrants until they could find the manpower to investigate their citizenship status or retrieve them for civil deportation proceedings.
By 2013, ICE was issuing nearly 18,000 immigration detainers monthly across the country.
Then judges began to rule that the detainers are merely requests, not binding orders, and local officials don't need to honor them or even inform ICE when a suspected illegal immigrant leaves their custody.
In 2014, ICE detainers plummeted to about 13,000 per month. Today, ICE issues slightly more than 8,000 monthly.
The nationwide revolt by mayors, police chiefs and wardens has pushed ICE into initiating a program to woo them back.
The Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, “supports community policing while ensuring ICE takes custody of dangerous criminals before they are released into the community,” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell told the Trib in a prepared statement.
PEP allows ICE to keep issuing voluntary detainers and requests for notifications if someone is close to being released, but it puts a bigger burden on the agency to cooperate with local governments, she said.
Critics wonder if it's too little, too late.
Sundrop Carter, organizing director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, said most communities realize that ICE detainers are not good for the bottom line.
“The communities in our state have very limited funds,” she said. “Holding people who have committed no crimes beyond the suspicion of federal immigration offenses costs local taxpayers money.”
The Temple study found that less than a third of jails statewide will hold suspected illegal immigrants past their release dates based on ICE detainers. The rest ditched the practice, did not have jails or were trying to come up with policies to merge ICE's need to investigate suspected undocumented immigrants and the constitutional rights of all Americans.
Pittsburgh officials recently learned that the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR — a nonprofit that lobbies for a temporary moratorium on immigration to the United States while hiking the number of deportations — named the city as one of 103 “sanctuary” municipalities.
FAIR says the designation means officials, including police, are barred “from asking persons about their immigration status, reporting them to federal immigration authorities, or otherwise cooperating with or assisting federal immigration authorities.”
FAIR cited a 2004 resolution unanimously passed by Pittsburgh City Council that allegedly blocks police from helping federal agents enforce immigration laws.
Past and present Pittsburgh officials said FAIR's designation is incorrect and unfair.
Former City Councilman Doug Shields, who sponsored the resolution, said neither city legislation nor executive orders back up FAIR's designation. Like many resolutions, he said, the measure was nonbinding. It was designed to protest the erosion of civil liberties for Americans as a result of enactment of domestic surveillance programs after 9/11.
It never forced police to stop assisting federal agencies, and no administration has behaved otherwise over the past 11 years, he said.
“Our resolution wasn't a left-or-right issue. We were concerned about unconstitutional actions by the federal government,” said Shields, a Squirrel Hill Democrat.
FAIR is “cherry-picking language,” he said. “They're misrepresenting what it really was all about.”
Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler pointed to a 2014 order, reaffirmed May 16, that calls for city police to honor lawful requests from ICE while ensuring that city officers don't become immigration officers. The policy balances the need for city cops to earn the trust of immigrant communities they must safeguard from crime and to work with federal officials.
FAIR President Dan Stein said the organization would review whether Pittsburgh deserves the label “Sanctuary City,” but he hopes questions about the list won't obscure its concerns about police responsibility and illegal immigration policy.
Carl Prine is a member of the Trib Total Media investigations team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7826.