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Legal experts send letter to Kent County Sheriff Stelma to say that the County is NOT obligated to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement

October 11, 2018

On September 27th, lawyers with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and the ACLU of Western Michigan sent Kent County Sheriff Stelma a letter with significant legal citations claiming that the County was not obligated to cooperate with ICE.

Some of the main points of the letter are as follows:

  • One of the most important concepts to understand about ICE detainers is that detainers are requests from ICE, and are not legally binding orders on the Sheriff’s Department to hold individuals for ICE. Your office has the choice to cease the practice of honoring ICE detainers and to end the contract for reimbursement at any time.
  • Other Sheriffs in Michigan – including those in Wayne County, Washtenaw County, and Ingham County – recognize that entanglement with ICE damages both their relationship with immigrant communities and their ability to protect the public, and have chosen not to cooperate with, or severely limit their cooperation with, ICE. There is no legal reason Kent County could not make the same choice.
  • You emphasized in our meeting the use of the proscriptive “shall” in the first paragraph of this section of the statute prohibits you from choosing not to comply with ICE detainers. However, that is an overly broad reading of the statute. The statute, of course, does not mention any required action with respect to ICE at all, nor does it indicate that the county jail must accept any and all prisoners presented to it for detention, only that jails shall be used in a certain way—for housing certain types of prisoners. For example, the statute allows Kent County to accept prisoners from the City of Grand Rapids, but it does not compel Kent County to have a contract with Grand Rapids to house the City’s prisoners. The same is true for ICE. We have found no cases or other authority suggesting that the statute has ever been interpreted to impose a mandate that a county jail hold federal prisoners. The statute authorizes the jail hold federal prisoners, but does not require the jail to do so.
  • Your office believes that because this section requires the federal government (“the United States”) to pay when it houses a prisoner in a county jail, the Kent County Jail must have a contract with ICE because that is the only way it can get paid. But that analysis presupposes that Kent County is going to hold detainees for ICE in the first place. Because detainers are voluntary, and because Kent County has no legal obligation to hold immigrants for ICE, it can simply stop doing so. And of course if Kent County is not holding immigrants for ICE, there is no need for the federal government to pay Kent County. In other words, MCL § 801.1 comes into play, if at all, only because your Department has elected to hold immigrants for deportation by ICE. If you change that policy, you would no longer be holding individuals for the federal government, and MCL § 801.1 would be irrelevant.
  • Finally, you stated that you understand your oath of office as requiring you to collaborate with ICE. That is simply not the case. MCL § 51.73 requires sheriffs to swear the constitutional oath of office, which provides: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of this state, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of [Kent County Sheriff] according to the best of my ability.” Mich. Const. Art. XI, § 1. There is absolutely nothing in that oath that requires the Sheriff to take on the entirely voluntary option of holding immigrants for potential deportation by ICE.
  • Contracting with ICE sows distrust in immigrant communities who are afraid that the Sheriff will turn them or a loved one over to ICE, starting a process that will tear their families apart in devastating and permanent ways. The Sheriff’s Department cannot expect to regain the trust of immigrant communities or repair its broken relationship with those communities so long as it prioritizes the desires of federal officials over the needs of immigrant residents of Kent County. The Sheriff’s Department is making an affirmative choice to hold immigrants for ICE – a choice which has caused great pain in the immigrant community. Ending the contract with ICE and ceasing the entirely voluntary practice of carrying out ICE detainers will go a long way in restoring that trust.
  • Furthermore, current federal deportation practices are inhumane and arbitrary. The ICE contract and the underlying policy of holding immigrants for ICE implicate the Kent County Sheriff’s Department in deportation practices that increasingly target immigrants with deeply rooted lives in the United States, right here in Kent County. These are people the United States has often explicitly invited to build families, careers, businesses, and communities in our country—over many years, sometimes decades—and now suddenly face deportation. The cruelty of these policies presents a further reason to disentangle your agency from the ICE detainer system.

The ACLU/MIRC letter ends with a plea to the Kent County Sheriff to rebuild community trust and to end the entanglement with ICE, stating:

We urge the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to stop the practice of carrying out ICE detainer requests and to terminate the contract with ICE. We encourage you to reach out to the Sheriffs of other counties in Michigan who have also taken proactive steps to limit, or stop altogether, the practice of helping ICE target the immigrant residents of their communities, such as Sheriff Jerry Clayton of Washtenaw County, Sheriff Benny N. Napolean of Wayne County, and Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth of Ingham County, among others. Their experience confirms that you have a choice about whether to hold our immigrant neighbors for ICE, and that other Sheriffs have found that it is in the best interests of their communities not to do so.

Again, the entire letter can be read at this link. For those who will be attending future Kent County Commission meetings or wanting to be part of the Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE campaign to End the Contract with ICE, this legal argument is a useful tool.

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