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Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

3 King County officials balk at ICE detainer program

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

Three Metropolitan King County Council members are urging that the county stop cooperating with immigration authorities in a federal deportation program that checks the immigration status of everyone booked into jail.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last month activated the program, Secure Communities, in all 39 Washington counties. It now exists in 2,792 jurisdictions in 49 states and territories — covering 88 percent of the nation.

The program allows fingerprints taken at local jails and sent to the FBI to be checked against a national immigration database. ICE then places a 48-hour detainer on those who are deportable — both legal and illegal immigrants, and often regardless of the crime.

The agency then begins the process of removing them from the country — with particular focus on those who have committed serious crimes.

But immigrant advocates have complained that the program snags those who have committed only minor offenses and makes some people reluctant to turn to the police for help.

Three County Council members in a letter to County Executive Dow Constantine say the program is costly and erodes community trust. They are asking him to implement a new policy against placing detainers on those who have not been convicted of a serious offense.

Claudia Balducci, director of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said county officials are still studying recommendations from the council members as well as community advocates and have not yet decided whether changes in policy are warranted.

If implemented, King County would join Cook County in Illinois and Santa Clara and San Francisco counties in California in refusing to fully honor ICE detainers.

The question comes three years after a divided County Council passed an ordinance prohibiting sheriff's deputies and other county employees from asking about people's immigration status in most circumstances.

Council Chairman Larry Gossett, who sponsored that 2009 measure and signed last week's letter to Constantine, said there needs to be a clear distinction between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement. Councilmembers Larry Phillips and Julia Patterson also signed the letter.

"Some of us would like to see if we can clarify what the policy will be in our county, particularly as it relates to ... people who have not been found guilty of any crime whatsoever," Gossett said.

The cost is another concern.

While local jurisdictions are reimbursed by the federal government for holding immigrants as part of their jail population — about $1 million a year to King County — they are not compensated for the 48-hour period covering the detainer.

Last week, ICE announced that it will stop issuing detainers for those arrested solely for minor traffic offenses — such as driving without a license — as long as those individuals have no prior criminal record.

ICE spokesman Andrew Muñoz said detainers ensure dangerous criminals are not released back into the local community.

He pointed out that some people arrested on minor criminal charges may actually have more serious criminal backgrounds.

"Historically, some criminal aliens with ICE detainers who have been mistakenly released to the streets ... have subsequently committed more serious crimes," Muñoz said. "Law-enforcement agencies that honor ICE detainers ultimately help protect public safety."

Established in 2008, Secure Communities has sparked controversy almost from the start and has resulted thus far in the deportation of 182,898 people nationwide.

Gossett said he's approaching the issue from a human perspective.

"I feel strongly that we need comprehensive immigration reform ... so that that guy with two, three kids, who has been here five, 10, 15 years, holding down a job in the restaurant at the Hyatt, supporting his family, has some kind of path to citizenship."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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