Politics

Sanctuary Cities’ Big Secret

What's really at work in these 'safe havens'?

On March 14, 2012, Oregon police arrested Maria Miranda-Olivares on a charge of violating a domestic violence restraining order, and the Clackamas County jail agreed to hold her pending a review by federal authorities of her legal immigration status.

Because of the federal hold, or “detainer,” the jail refused to allow the defendant’s sister to post bail and did not release Miranda-Olivares until March 30, when they turned her over to Department of Homeland Security agents.

As a result, Miranda-Olivares sued, and in April 2014, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled that Clackamas County had violated her Fourth Amendment right against illegal seizure. The county settled the case in May, agreeing to pay her $30,100 and pick up her legal bills.

That lawsuit — and a ruling by the Philadelphia-based Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case — appear to be as responsible for the rapid proliferation of “sanctuary cities” across the United States as a desire by local officials to frustrate federal immigration authorities. In other words: A fear of lawsuits is at work here perhaps as much as, or more than, a moral obligation to help out immigrants in trouble.

Related: Sanctuary City Crackdown

With congressional Republicans threatening to withhold certain federal grants from local jurisdictions that fail to cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities, some local officials contend their hands are tied.

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“We don’t have any policy or anything that prohibits our folks from interacting with (Immigration Customs Enforcement),” Huntington Beach, California, Police Chief Robert Handy told the Associated Press last week. “We just follow the law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and pro-immigration groups have aggressively pushed for an end to federal-local cooperation in the enforcement of detention law.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and pro-immigration groups have aggressively pushed for an end to federal-local cooperation in the enforcement of detention law. The ACLU’s Washington state branch, for instance, started a petition seeking to pressure local jurisdictions.

“Tell your county: Reject detainer requests!” the web post screams.

“Continuing to hold people after they would otherwise be released is not only unnecessary, it is expensive and harms public safety by diverting scarce resources away from stopping crime in our communities,” the ACLU states. “Unnecessary detainers have been used to target U.S. citizens and victims of domestic violence.”

The ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project represented the plaintiff in the Pennsylvania case.

No Warrants
In the Oregon case, Miranda-Olivares had not been charged with a federal crime and was not subject to a federal warrant. After she pleaded guilty to violating the restraining order and served her two-day jail sentence, Clackamas County relied solely on the immigration detainer to continue holding her.

“But the ICE detainer alone did not demonstrate probable cause to hold Miranda-Olivares,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart wrote in her order. “It stated only that an investigation ‘has been initiated’ to determine whether she was subject to removal from the United States.”

Related: GOP Rep Punishes Sanctuary Policies

The order also stated: “In this case, any injury Miranda-Olivares suffered was the direct result of the County exercising its custom and practice to hold her beyond the date she was eligible for release based solely on the ICE detainer.”

Stewart also rejected the county’s argument that it had no choice but to comply with the immigration detainer, citing language in the federal statute that local jurisdictions “shall maintain custody of an alien.” Normally, defendants cannot be held liable of denying constitutional rights if they follow a federal law, since they have no discretion to do otherwise.

She cited a regulation that stated: “The detainer is a request that such agency advise the Department, prior to release of the alien …”

But Stewart ruled that compliance with the federal detainer was not mandatory. She cited a regulation that stated: “The detainer is a request that such agency advise the Department, prior to release of the alien …”

A Question of Legality
In the 3rd Circuit ruling a month before the Miranda-Olivares decision in Portland, appellate judges upheld the right of Ernesto Galarza to sue officials in Allentown, Pennsylvania, after authorities held him for four days until ICE agents could question him about whether he was lawfully in the country.

Galarza, according to court records, had been arrested in November 2008 on a cocaine charge. He ultimately was able to demonstrate that he was born in New Jersey.

But the appellate court ruled that Allentown had no legal right to hold him on the immigration detainer after he posted $15,000 bail on the drug charge.

The United States and the city of Allentown together paid $50,000 to Galarza, and Lehigh County paid $95,000 in damages and legal fees. The county also ended its policy of honoring immigration detainers.

The United States and the city of Allentown together paid $50,000 to Galarza, and Lehigh County paid $95,000 in damages and legal fees. The county also ended its policy of honoring immigration detainers.

The two court rulings prompted a number of cities and counties that had worked closely with federal authorities to stop honoring detainers. Federal officials responded by asking local law enforcement officers to notify them when a suspected illegal immigrant is about to be released, but not hold them.

So while very liberal cities like San Francisco proudly wear the “sanctuary” label, it appears that the majority of counties and cities simply are trying to avoid lawsuits.

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