Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson is making it harder for federal officials to detain inmates for immigration issues in a move he hopes will make new residents from other countries more comfortable reporting crime.

The most recent change came in June when the sheriff issued a directive to greatly limit the use of immigration detainer warrants to hold people in jail who may otherwise be released. The warrants, used by the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), can no longer cause people to be held in jail unless authorities take the added step of getting a judge's approval.

The sheriff also removed the ICE office at the jail and has stopped alerting the agency when undocumented people will be released.

"We haven't received any blowback from ICE," Hutchinson said. "We treat them like any other agency. They understand we have to do our jobs and they have to do their jobs."

A spokesman for ICE declined to comment.

Hutchinson swept into office in 2019 after taking strong stances on immigration issues during his campaign, but his new approach in dealing with immigration issues is raising concern among those who believe local sheriffs and police departments need to be in close cooperation with federal agencies.

"It's still against the law to be in this country illegally," said state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican from Alexandria and former Douglas County sheriff. "We have some very tough customers that are coming in. A decision to not comply with an order or refuse to detain somebody could hinder public safety."

The changes at the jail sends a message to the immigrant community that they should feel comfortable calling police if they are a crime victim and not fear deportation for reporting it, Hutchinson said.

"New Americans are often crime victims because they are vulnerable," he said. "We are doing all we can for the county. We are not the federal government."

Hutchinson did not know the number of administrative warrants received by his office. But they responded to more than 200 federal inquiries about immigrants in custody in 2020, some of which led to transfers to federal custody. Federal immigration authorities made more than 1,000 inquiries in 2019.

Unlike a criminal arrest warrant, administrative detainer warrants often do not require a judge's approval.

If a warrant is not signed by a judge, the inmate will be released after local charges or other holds have been satisfied, according to the directive.

Decriminalizing Communities Coalition, which includes more than a dozen organizations, has kept steady pressure on the Sheriff's Office to end its cooperation with ICE. During a meeting with Hutchinson in July, the group was told that the warrant directive is a procedural change and not a formalized new policy.

"This concerns me that the directive hasn't been solidified as a policy, but we are proud of the progress so far," said Sarah Buchlaw, an organizer with Jewish Community Action and a member of the coalition. "We want to make sure this is lasting change beyond Hutchinson."

Other changes under the sheriff include placing inmate rights information in several languages by telephones, and plans to ask the County Board to no longer accept a federal justice grant that required cooperation with ICE under former President Donald Trump.

Hennepin County Commissioner Chris LaTondresse said he supports Hutchinson's changes.

He said law enforcement agencies across Hennepin County have made it clear that the Trump administration's executive orders cracking down on immigration made people feel unsafe, especially victims of crime in immigrant and refugee communities.

Immigrant advocacy groups say that Hutchinson should rethink his policy that allows federal law enforcement agents to interview people in jail. The interview subject isn't able to voluntarily leave the space, and they might not have strong English skills, said Mary Georgevich, a lawyer with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

"I don't know of any authority that requires a sheriff to allow ICE access to people in custody," she said. "Ramsey County and Minneapolis and St. Paul have ordinances that forbid police to enforce federal immigration laws."

Ingebrigtsen said he understands Hutchinson's argument for refusing to enforce a warrant not signed by a judge. But he questioned what might be the next procedure or request from federal authorities that the sheriff declines to honor.

"It's always a bit challenging to work with federal agencies, but there should be cooperation," said Ingebrigtsen. "You may be damaging relationships if you need their help in the future."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465