President Donald Trump’s push to end city and county practices that offer “sanctuary” to immigrants living in the country illegally will face a direct test in county jails, with tens of millions of dollars at stake.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) routinely asks county jails to hold inmates for deportation. Neither Hennepin nor Ramsey counties honors those requests — called “detainers” — without a signed order from a judge, citing constitutional concerns and the expense of holding inmates for the federal government. But Trump’s demand for more aggressive immigration enforcement, coupled with his threat to strip federal funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions,” will force tough decisions upon county officials.
“A lot of counties right now are feeling that on the one hand they risk losing federal funding if they’re not honoring immigration detainers, and on the other hand they are possibly running afoul of legal precedents that could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits” if they do honor the detainers, said Hadi Sedigh, a policy analyst at the National Association of Counties.
Hennepin County’s budget includes $198 million in federal funding, about 10 percent of the budget. Ramsey County’s includes $89.6 million, or about 14 percent of the budget. In each case the county receives far more money from the federal government than its biggest city — Minneapolis or St. Paul.
It is unclear how the order will be enforced or how much money could be withheld. So far, local officials say their policies have not changed.
“We are in consultation with the county attorney, and we are speaking with them on how best to move forward and to ascertain how the order may affect us,” said Sgt. John Eastham, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.
Trump has insisted the United States must deport criminals who are living in the country illegally, and his executive order last week instructed the Department of Homeland Security to revive the “Secure Communities” program to broaden the criteria under which it seeks to deport undocumented immigrants who are arrested. Federal immigration authorities should prioritize not just convicted criminals, the order says, but also those who are or could be charged with a crime.
Work with ICE
Jails send fingerprints to the FBI when they book someone, and the FBI shares that information with ICE, which can issue a detainer asking the jail to hold an inmate an extra 48 hours so he or she can be deported.
Under the “Secure Communities” program, which mostly took effect under President Barack Obama, the number of detainers issued to Twin Cities jails shot up, and counties gradually became less cooperative.
For instance, Hennepin County received 437 detainer requests in 2010 and honored almost all of them, according to TracImmigration data at Syracuse University. But in 2012, when ICE issued 1,176 detainers to Hennepin County, only about half the inmates flagged were held for ICE.
The Obama administration phased “Secure Communities” out in 2014, and immigration agents were instructed to focus on deporting felons and terrorists. Meanwhile, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek announced in 2014 his deputies would no longer honor detainers that didn’t come with a judge’s order, citing costs and constitutional concerns.
Stanek was not available to comment. He has previously said he was concerned that not honoring the detainers would look soft on illegal immigration. And on Saturday, he hailed the new administration, saying the country has begun a “patriotic spring.”
Jon Collins, the spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, said the county’s policy is unchanged: “We do not hold an individual beyond what the courts dictate, again absent judicial authority.”
Counties are hoping for guidance from the Trump administration. A local spokesman for ICE referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, and officials there did not respond to requests for comment.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson said he’s inclined to agree with that move, though he’s uncertain whether Hennepin would be considered a sanctuary county.
“The financial consequences to property taxpayers in the county could be very significant and, more importantly, we should be doing all we can to help enforce our country’s immigration laws,” Johnson said.
Other commissioners aren’t so sure. Commissioner Jan Callison said she needs to understand the order better before she can take a position. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said he agrees with the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, who argue that in order to build trust in the community, local police must not act as immigration agents.
“We’ve seen what happens when the relationship between law enforcement and the public deteriorates, and it isn’t a good thing,” McLaughlin said.
While there may be confusion at counties about what constitutes a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” there’s no lack of clarity among proponents of tighter immigration controls.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, whose work helped inform Trump’s immigration policy, said any county that doesn’t always honor detainers is a sanctuary jurisdiction. The president’s order requires jails to honor all federal immigration detainers, Krikorian said, calling the move “long overdue.”
And the president’s order to reinstate “Secure Communities” has special resonance among Latinos, who remember the detainers and deportations of 2011 and 2012.
“It was very, very bad when that was going on,” said Daniel Farías, owner of Mi Boleto travel agency in Minneapolis.
While he understands the need to deport criminals, Farías and other business owners on Lake Street are worried their customers and employees will be affected and their businesses hurt.
“If you’re a criminal, you’re a criminal,” Farías said. “But the whole way they used this, and the whole way in which they define a criminal, if you get a traffic ticket or get stopped for something else, it just snowballs.”