King County narrows types of crime for immigrant jail holds

SEATTLE — Washington state’s most populous county is closer to narrowing the types of crimes that would hold immigrants in county jail at the request of federal immigration authorities.

On a 5-4 vote, the King County Council passed a measure spearheaded by councilman Larry Gossett. The measure now heads to County Executive Dow Constantine, who has signaled his support for the bill.

Under the measure, the types of crimes that trigger a detainer would be narrowed to serious and violent offenses, such as assaults, rape, robbery, repeated drunken driving and other felonies. If a person is in jail for a misdemeanor, the county wouldn’t honor the detainer request.

Approval of the measure has been a goal for immigrant advocacy groups which argue that detainers often sweep up people who have not been convicted of a crime. Moreover, the King County measure could be used as a template for a statewide bill in the upcoming legislative session.

“The evidence is clear that these ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) practices with regard to immigration detainer requests undermine public safety, do little to fix our broken immigration system, and devastate our families and communities. This ordinance sends a clear message that King County will no longer collude in funneling its residents into an unjust deportation system,” said Ann Benson, directing attorney of the Washington Defender Association’s Immigration Project, in a statement.

For years, ICE has been combing jail rosters and requesting holds on people suspected of being in the country illegally. The agency has repeatedly said its deportation efforts focus on immigrants with criminal records.

“ICE has implemented clear priorities that focus on convicted criminals and other public safety threats, on those who repeatedly violate our immigration laws. The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities,” said Andrew Munoz, spokesman for ICE in Seattle.

There were 4,305 detainers issued in King County between 2009 and 2012, according to county council researchers. It’s not known whether these detainers resulted in deportations or further detention for the individuals.

In fiscal year 2012 and in the first four months of fiscal year 2013, no more than 14 percent of detainers issued by ICE nationwide met the agency’s stated goal of targeting individuals who pose a serious threat, according to a report from the Syracuse University-based research center Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The center reported that 47.7 percent of the 347,691 individuals issued a detainer had no record of a criminal conviction, or even a minor traffic violation.

A University of Washington study released in 2013 concluded that, on average, a hold leads to an extension of a person’s stay in jail by nearly 30 days when compared with a person without an immigration detainer. Researchers also said that four in five people put on hold have never been convicted of a crime against a person in Washington state, and a similar ratio had never been convicted of a felony. The report also said more than half of detainers were for misdemeanors.

The split vote drew spirited debate among the council members, some who questioned whether the measure was too broad in allowing too many crimes before a detainer is honored. The King County Republican Party testified that the measure would endanger communities and disturb the peace by sending ICE agents looking for offenders.

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