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Ruling spurs counties to release immigrants who are eligible, ignoring feds’ requests

Associated Press

SEATTLE – Counties in Washington have joined a growing number of local jurisdictions in Colorado and Oregon that will no longer detain immigrants who are eligible for release on behalf of federal immigration authorities.

Walla Walla, Kitsap and Thurston counties are some of the first confirmed counties in Washington to change their policy following a recent court decision in Oregon that found that such detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are not commands that local jurisdictions have to abide by, and that sheriffs could be liable for constitutional violations for holding people past the time when they would otherwise be released.

“It significantly reduces the possibility that Walla Walla County will get sued for similar conduct that got Clackamas County sued,” Sheriff John Turner told the Associated Press last week.

Clackamas County was sued after a woman – who was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to 48 hours in jail – was detained for more than two weeks because of an ICE hold. A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the county that detained the woman violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment by prolonging her incarceration without probable cause. She had been eligible to leave after posting bail.

In Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project are putting pressure on sheriffs to stop honoring the so-called detainers. The two groups sent letters to 38 county sheriffs, except in King County, telling them the federal court ruling opens the possibility of lawsuits.

For years, immigration agents have combed jail rosters looking for immigrants who are illegally in the country. The Obama administration has said its immigration policy is heavily focused on deporting immigrants with criminal records and enhancing programs around those goals.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats,” ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said in a statement.

The issue around holding immigrants in jails has been a rallying point for immigration advocates. In Washington, a measure was pushed in Olympia that would have prohibited local jurisdictions from detaining immigrants unless the person had been convicted of a serious crime. The Washington bill died, but a similar measure was approved in California and the number of detainers has dropped significantly.

Last year, King County joined numerous jurisdictions and states around the country that have stopped or limited their compliance with detainer requests. Massachusetts and Maryland are considering similar legislation.

Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he’s worried counties will get sued, and disagreed with that part of the court ruling.

“They believed they were acting in good faith and legally,” he said.

Violeta Chapin, a clinical law professor at the University of Colorado who has worked on immigration cases, said she has a client in Boulder who has spent six months in jail for his first-ever traffic offense.

“It has been shocking to see how disproportionate and severe the punishments have been for noncitizens living here in Colorado as compared to similarly situated citizens that come in the jail and pay their bond and get out and go home to their families,” she said.

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