Philadelphia Police No Longer Cooperating With ICE on Deportation Holds

April 25, 2014

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recently announced that the Philadelphia Police Department would no longer comply with most hold requests from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). This follows similar announcements from all around the country in the past few months. It is pretty unusual to have a mayor hold a press conference to declare that he will be ignoring requests from the federal government. So what’s going on here?

First, what is a hold request? 

When someone is arrested, they are taken to a local jail where they are fingerprinted and processed. Their fingerprints are uploaded to the FBI database, where they are compared for matches. The FBI shares that information with ICE, and ICE determines whether to initiate deportation proceedings for the arrested person. If ICE wants to go forward with deportation, they send a request (called an “immigration detainer“) to the local police, asking that they hold the person in jail for up to 48 hours while ICE gets ready to take over custody.

Sounds reasonable. What’s the problem?

Well, there is the obvious problem this presents for undocumented immigrants. Before, they needed to avoid ICE officers; now an encounter with any law enforcement officer could lead to deportation. But beyond being bad for the immigrants themselves, deportation holds can poison the relationship between immigrant communities and law enforcement. This causes problems for everyone.

How so?

Imagine your neighbor is having a party. The music has been loud all night, but now it’s past 2AM and it sounds like maybe someone is having a fight. You might call the police to break up the party.

But if you thought there might be undocumented immigrants at the party – people you know, or whose families you know – then you probably don’t make that call. It’s one thing to subject a rowdy neighbor to a night in the drunk tank. It’s another thing entirely to break up their family and send them to another country.

This calculus doesn’t only apply to public disorder complaints. The guy down the street looked like he was being a little rough with his wife. But what if you were wrong? Is it worth risking his deportation? And won’t they just deport her too?*  Those kids tagging your apartment building should clearly be in school. Get them deported, or just ignore it? And if you yourself are undocumented? People get arrested all the time after they themselves called the police to report a crime. It’s not worth the risk.

When any encounter with police might lead to a deportation, fewer people are going to call the police, and more criminals will get away with their crimes.

*Hopefully not. The U Visa is available for victims of certain crimes, including victims of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, that information is far from universally known. 

Is that why some local law enforcement agencies are not complying with hold requests?

It’s a big reason, but it’s not the only reason. Part of the complaint from local police is that they are being asked to perform an enormous and resource-intensive job – a job they didn’t sign up for – all at a time when their budgets are already stretched. They feel their time and energy (not to mention the space in their jails) would be better spent on other matters.

OK, but if people have broken immigration law and they are being held in jail, it still seems weird to just let them go. 

Remember, these are people who have been arrested, not convicted. When you’re arrested, local police officers don’t check with the IRS to see if you have your taxes paid up. They don’t check with Licenses & Inspections to make sure your restaurant is up to code, and they don’t check with the NOAA OLE to see if you’re suspected of illegally hunting hawkbill turtles. Those agencies are responsible for coordinating their own enforcement. Immigration law is no different. ICE is tasked with enforcing federal immigration law – that’s its whole reason for existing –  and while it might make intuitive sense to have local police aid in those efforts, city and state law enforcement agencies have finite resources. Mayor Nutter, like other mayors and sheriffs around the country, decided to direct his police officers’ finite resources elsewhere.

Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter

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