Citing constitutionality questions, Hennepin County said Wednesday it will no longer grant federal requests to hold immigrant inmates for 48 hours beyond their normal release times for possible deportation.

In the past, law enforcement agencies considered it mandatory to honor detainer requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for certain undocumented immigrants. However, recent directives from ICE and federal court rulings have said the detainers are now discretionary.

“This is an historic occasion,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “There is no legal basis to hold people with detainers.”

With its decision, Hennepin County joined a national trend against “ICE hold” requests. More than 50 jurisdictions nationwide, including sheriffs in Philadelphia and several Oregon counties, recently stopped the practice. And Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco won’t detain immigrants with minor criminal records.

Several metro counties are following suit, but not all agree the time is right to stop processing the requests. Ramsey County said Thursday it, too, will no longer grant the requests, and Dakota County said it’s leaning in that direction. Anoka County has decided to continue to grant the requests.

The policy shift drew immediate support from many officials, community leaders and immigrants’ advocates. John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of people being deported without having committed a serious crime. “I think ICE would agree that not dealing with detainers is a more efficient and strategic use of scarce funds and time,” he said.

ICE has argued that the detainers are critical for their agency to be able to identify and ultimately remove criminal illegal immigrants who fall into federal, state or local custody. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said public safety won’t be compromised because ICE is notified about everyone booked into jail, so it can pick them up after their release.

The decision is not likely to be popular with those who would like to see more regulation of illegal immigration.

“I’ve had frank conversation with the sheriff, and he’s concerned about pushback by people who are seeing this as being soft on immigrants,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “But at the end of the day, he agreed that he had to follow the Constitution. He had to do this.”

Fewer than 2 percent of the 36,000 inmates booked yearly at the jail have had a detainer placed on them, Stanek said. But since 2012, the cost to taxpayers of detaining them an extra two days has been more than $170,000.

“They wouldn’t tell us why they wanted to hold the inmate,” Stanek said. “They won’t or can’t tell us. We just weren’t getting any information.”

In a short statement, ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said Wednesday that the agency will continue to work cooperatively with Minnesota law enforcement as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities by removing convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats.

Support from many corners

In May, the state ACLU sent letters to all Minnesota sheriffs urging them to stop holding immigration detainees. The group wrote that sheriffs have no legal obligation to honor the requests and suggested that by complying with them, counties were forcing taxpayers to incur unnecessary per diem costs for housing detainees.

The ACLU cited data from the Syracuse University-based TRAC program showing how widespread the practice is in Minnesota.

Between October 2011 and August 2013, ICE issued more than 5,300 detainers to Minnesota jails, it said.

Almost every county jail in Minnesota has been asked to hold prisoners past their release date, TRAC data show. Typically, the top three crimes by people with detainers are drunken driving, traffic violations and marijuana possession.

“We hear from a ton of people who were detained,” Samuelson said Wednesday. “It’s not a crime to be in this country without proper documentation.”

Stanek’s new policy has support from Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, civil rights and immigration advocates and members of the Sheriff Office’s community advisory board.

Board member Leo Espinoza, a media personality who hosts workshops on racial equality and human rights, called the policy a big step toward improving police-community relations. Imam Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble, president of World Peace Organization and advisory board member, said it shows that the sheriff and community members are continuing to learn and help each other.

As Washington wrestles over immigration reform, Hodges said it is essential that localities begin to refuse to bear the consequences of politicians’ failure to act.

“We owe it to them to ensure that those who are law-abiding, taxpaying contributors to our communities don’t live in fear of a parking ticket and are able to seek help from our police without fear of deportation,” she said.