Under Pressure

How the Department of Homeland Security Is Bullying Sanctuary Cities

Sanctuary cities that refuse to hold undocumented immigrants to be deported by ICE are being singled out in a new weekly report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The Department of Homeland Security is amping up the pressure on so-called sanctuary cities, and it has an enthusiastic ally: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

On Monday morning, DHS rolled out a report on undocumented immigrants with criminal charges or convictions who, the agency learned, were released from jails in sanctuary cities. President Donald Trump has ordered the agency to start releasing these reports once a week. It’s the first step of many to pressure local law enforcement to help the federal government enforce immigration laws.

Critics say the reports are part of an effort from the White House to shame cities into joining Trump’s so-called deportation force, locking up undocumented immigrants so U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can pick them up to deport them. Trump and his allies say that pressure will help increase the number of deportations, which they argue will reduce crime.

The information in the DHS report is culled from local law enforcement. Local officers fingerprint the people they arrest, and that information goes to national databases. ICE then gets information about the arrestee, and if it’s a person they are seeking to detain and deport, the agency issues a detainer—meaning, a request that the local jurisdiction keep the undocumented immigrant in jail, even if he or she would otherwise have the right to leave. More than 600 jurisdictions in the U.S. refuse to hold undocumented immigrants for ICE, and the Trump administration wants that to change—and fast.

As part of the president’s effort to get it done, DHS will release a list every week of all the jurisdictions that released undocumented immigrants from custody instead of holding them so they could be deported.

This week’s list will likely put significant pressure on Travis County, Texas. The DHS report listed 206 people nationwide who were able to leave jail instead of being held to be picked up by ICE agents and deported. Of those 206 people, 142 were from Travis County.

Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, released a statement ripping into the county over the report.

“Today’s report from DHS is deeply disturbing and highlights the urgent need for a statewide sanctuary city ban in Texas,” he said. “The Travis County Sheriff’s decision to deny ICE detainer requests and release back into our communities criminals charged with heinous crimes—including sexual offenses against children, domestic violence and kidnapping—is dangerous and should be criminal in itself. Texas will act to put an end to sanctuary policies that put the lives of our citizens at risk.”

But that’s easier said than done. Sometimes jurisdictions that hold people in jail so they can be picked up by ICE get taken to court. And sometimes, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse, ICE has inadvertently asked local jails to hold people who turn out to be U.S. citizens—834 people total, by its count, from 2008 to 2012. The Transactional Records Clearinghouse also found that another 28,489 lawful permanent residents were named on ICE detainers in that window of time.

Immigration restrictionist groups, like the influential Center for Immigration Studies, have long argued that local jails should have to hold people so ICE can pick them up. But civil rights groups, like the ACLU, say such a practice violates those people’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue.

“It’s a shaming operation that is trying to bully local police departments into doing something that many believe is illegal and unsafe,” said Domenic Powell, an advocacy and policy strategist at the ACLU. “It makes it more difficult for police to speak with victims, for witnesses to come forward.”

In the summer of 2015, ICE detainers became a major campaign issue after the killing of a woman named Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant. Her accused killer had been released from jail despite ICE having a detainer on him. Trump brought up the case every chance he got on the campaign trail. And now, the Trump administration is trying to twist arms.

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“For an administration that claims to care about local law enforcement, this is total disrespect to the fact that those jurisdictions have sound legal, constitutional reasons for drawing a line at where and how and under what circumstances they’ll cooperate,” said Avideh Moussavian, a policy attorney at the National Immigrant Legal Center.

That isn’t a consensus view. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement on Monday praising the DHS report.

“This important report demonstrates a clear and ongoing threat to public safety. It is not acceptable for jurisdictions to refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement by releasing criminal aliens back into our communities when our law required them to be deported,” he said. “The Department of Justice will use all lawful authority to ensure that criminals who are illegally in this country are detained and removed swiftly and to hold accountable jurisdictions that willfully violate federal law.”

The sanctuary cities fight has the potential to be a defining legal and political battle of the Trump administration—and with the release of the first weekly report, it’s just getting started.