Michigan GOP targets immigration ‘sanctuaries’

Robert Snell, and George Hunter

Republican state lawmakers want to block cities from sheltering immigrants from federal agents, an effort sparked by the recent shooting death of a California woman by an undocumented immigrant.

They are working on legislation that would bar state funding to communities that adopt so-called “sanctuary city” policies. More than 200 cities nationwide have adopted policies that shelter people in the U.S. without papers, but only two are in Michigan — Detroit and Ann Arbor.

“These policies protect criminals who have entered our country illegally,” said Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township. “People entering our country illegally have no business being here. I, for one, have no time or patience for criminals, and I have even less tolerance for anyone who protects them.”

The attempts come amid heightened scrutiny of sanctuary city policies nationwide in the wake of the shooting death of a San Francisco woman this month by an undocumented immigrant. Also fueling the debate: controversial comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accusing Mexico of sending criminals into the United States.

Some Democrats and immigration lawyers are opposed to the efforts, saying the proposed ban would damage relations between law enforcement and residents.

“When an individual who is violating the law is apprehended, we are going to treat them accordingly and refer them to the proper authorities,” said state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. “But when they are living and working and contributing and going to church and raising a family, we don’t want to have the local police doing the federal government’s work by destroying families and kicking them out of the country.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can send notices to local law enforcement agencies requesting authorities turn over undocumented immigrants who are being held on local charges. Local police are not required to to comply; some communities designated as sanctuary cities decline them.

Nationally and in Michigan, the number of federal requests for detainment of immigrants here illegally is on the decline, and it’s unclear why.

ICE requested 100,000 fewer detainers nationwide between 2012 and 2014, a 39 percent decline, according to Justice Department statistics.

In Michigan, the drop is even greater. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of detainers issued by ICE fell 53 percent.

Only 18 detainer requests were issued to Detroit police precincts during that period. That’s half as many as the much smaller city of Dearborn.

An ICE spokesman downplayed the impact that Detroit’s status as a sanctuary city has on detainer requests.

Any impact is lessened because Wayne County, which operates jails in Detroit, will honor detainer requests, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said.

In May 2007, the Detroit City Council passed a city ordinance forbidding Detroit Police and city employees from asking about residents’ immigration status. Under the law, police cannot ask people for their immigration papers unless it is related to a crime.

The ordinance was passed after residents complained police were asking for their green cards after being pulled over. Others said they were afraid to apply for city programs because of their immigration status.

Mayor Mike Duggan on Thursday said he does not believe the legislative effort is designed to target Detroit’s sanctuary city policy. He wants to discuss the issue with legislators.

“I can’t believe that anybody would find this (Detroit’s) policy objectionable,” Duggan said. “It’s sound policy. You don’t profile your citizens and you don’t want victims and witnesses to be afraid to come forward.”

Detroit Police 2nd Deputy Chief Celia Banks Washington, the police department’s legal adviser, said the sanctuary city policy has been discussed repeatedly since Kathryn Steinle, 32, was shot and killed July 1 while walking on a popular San Francisco pier.

Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who has been deported to his native Mexico five times and is suspected of living in the United States illegally, told television news stations he found the gun on the pier and it accidentally fired.

The San Francisco sheriff, citing the city’s “sanctuary city” policy, released Sanchez in April after prosecutors dropped a drug charge against him. He was released despite an ICE request to hold him for federal authorities so deportation proceedings could begin.

“This has been a hot topic the past few days,” Washington said. “The bottom line is: Per the city ordinance, officers can’t solicit information about an individual’s immigration status for the sole purpose of determining their compliance. Nor can you ask a person who is a victim or a witness about their immigration status.”

The Detroit ordinance does have important exceptions, Washington said.

“Unlike in San Francisco, we can inquire about a person’s immigration status if we’re assisting federal authorities in connection with a criminal offense,” she said.

After the City Council passed the ordinance, Detroit Police officials issued a training directive to officers informing them of the changes, Washington said.

“There’s nothing in the language of the ordinance that prevents us from cooperating with federal authorities,” she said.

“We don’t write the ordinances; our job is to enforce the law, however it’s written,” Washington said.

Police Chief James Craig said his department works with federal agencies when requested, as long as it complies with the ordinance.

“We will cooperate with the feds, but like most police agencies, we don’t go out with the sole purpose of investigating violators of immigration law,” he said.

Local police officers are not supposed to target immigration violations, Farmington Hills immigration lawyer George Mann said. He opposes banning sanctuary city policies.

“If a suspect has committed a federal crime, and it is connected with immigration, one can understand if (local police) call Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Mann said.

The problem Mann has seen is suburban police targeting people they say look Hispanic, discovering a possible immigration violation and notifying federal investigators.

“That undermines a community’s trust in the local police,” Mann said.

Christine Ferretti and the Associated Press contributed.