A proposal in King County aims to rein in how much access federal immigration authorities have at the county jail. A council committee held its first public meeting on the measure Tuesday.
Several counties in other states have already adopted similar policies, with mixed public reaction.
Here’s the situation King County is trying to address: When suspects are booked into jail, their fingerprints are automatically shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If ICE suspects the person is in the United States illegally, they ask the jail to place a hold. Those holds tend to lead to deportation, even if the person has a clean record.
A recent study from the University of Washington looked at King County jail data from 2011. It found that people with ICE holds spent an extra month in jail, on average. And that one out of every eight people held was never charged with a crime.
This has led a number of states and counties around the country to modify their hold policies.
Two years ago, for example, Santa Clara County in California became one of the first counties to reject these ICE holds, even holds for people who are convicted of violent or serious crimes.
In California, District Attorney Jeff Rosen says this issue has sparked plenty of debate. “Not everyone should be turned over to ICE, but some people should,” he said. Rosen disagrees with his county’s all-or-nothing approach. "If you hurt someone. If you rape them, if you rob them, if you deal in large quantities of drugs — why wouldn’t we deport that person?" he said.
The measure under consideration by King County would allow for deportations of people convicted of violent crimes.
Here, this measure would direct the jail to honor ICE holds for serious or violent offenders, but not for people charged with minor crimes, like traffic violations.
Supporters say this proposal matches up with ICE’s guidelines to prioritize serious criminals for deportation.
This issue has played out differently across the country. Some counties have opted for more control over the jail holds, while others have left it up to ICE. Meanwhile, it’s become a statewide issue in other places, like California and Connecticut. In some areas the policy changes have prompted lawsuits and public outcry.
In Cook County, Illinois, a 2011 policy change to ignore all ICE hold requests resulted in a recent lawsuit by a conservative group that claims the policy compromises public safety.
Public safety is often at the heart of this debate. That’s one reason why the King County Sheriff says he supports a higher bar for ICE holds. He’s concerned crime victims or witnesses will steer clear of local authorities if they fear it could lead to deportation.