TACOMA -- Prompted by the murder of a woman in California, allegedly at the hands of a man in the country illegally, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor is blasting the country’s immigration system and the “impossible” job it creates for local and federal agents who are trying to keep dangerous criminals out of the country.
The death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier earlier this month has intensified an already heated debate over immigration. Steinle was shot and killed, allegedly by a convicted felon and Mexican national who had been deported from the country numerous times only to return.
“If you find someone who is illegally here and has committed a serious crime and you remove them from the country, then you deal with them again for the same thing in three weeks, what’s wrong with this picture?” Pastor said in an interview with Q13 FOX News.
Pastor said he does not support so-called “sanctuary” policies in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which can make it less likely that local agencies will honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain individuals for deportation.
Such policies have been blamed by some for contributing to Steinle’s death.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who has been charged with first-degree murder in the case, was released from the custody of local officials despite a request from ICE that he be held and turned over to agents for deportation due to his lengthy criminal background and history of crossing back into the country once removed.
In Pierce County, Sheriff Pastor said his deputies cooperate with ICE agents, although there are some limits to that cooperation.
“We don’t shun ICE,” he said. “We are not a sanctuary jail in a sanctuary city. At the same time, we obey what federal courts say.”
Pastor pointed to a 2014 federal court ruling in Oregon that stated local agencies are not required to honor ice detainers and could actually be violating an individual’s rights by holding them too long. It means jails like Pierce County require a court order from ICE before honoring a detainer.
“We cannot simply hold them on say so,” Pastor said. “We can hold them with sufficient paper provided by ICE. And if we have a reason to believe that ICE is interested in this person, we may say, ‘Hi. If you have some valid, court blessed reason to hold him please let us know.’”
With the federal court ruling as a guide, the number of individuals held on ICE detainers at the Pierce County Jail has declined – from 398 in 2009, to 136 in 2014, and just 29 so far in 2015.
In King County, where a “sanctuary” policy is on the books, the number of ICE detainers at the King County Jail has dropped dramatically.
The jail handled 1,244 detainers in 2009, 1,212 in 2012, 939, in 2011, 910 in 2012, 689 in 2013, and only one in 2014.
The dramatic drop off in 2014 is likely the result of an ordinance passed in King County in 2013 that said detainers would only be honored for undocumented immigrants accused of more serious crimes.
“I think that that’s a clear reflection that people were being detained for very minor infractions that in no way would make them criminals,” said Eduardo Baca, the consul of Mexico in Seattle.
Baca said detainers should be used to deport serious criminals and, in that regard, the system may have failed in the San Francisco case. He stands behind “sanctuary” policies, saying they make communities safer by encouraging undocumented immigrants to report crimes without fear of detention or deportation.
“In this case, this crime, it’s very unfortunate and it certainly didn’t work,” he said of Steinle’s murder. “The authorities weren’t able to deport him, but it shouldn’t automatically tarnish the ideas and the principles of sanctuary cities.”
In response to the controversy in California, ICE said in a statement that it is working with local jurisdictions to make sure those who pose a threat to the community are detained and deported.
The Department of Homeland Security is working to implement an initiative called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). It would require ICE agents to issue detainers on those who meet certain “heightened enforcement priorities under PEP to ensure individuals who pose a threat to public safety are not released from prisons or jails into our communities.”
“PEP is a balanced, common-sense approach that places the focus where it should be: on criminals and individuals who threaten the public safety,” ICE said in a statement. “ICE is committed to working with its law enforcement partners in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide to achieve that mission.”
Sheriff Pastor said efforts to deport dangerous criminals will be fruitless if the country does not secure its borders and make meaningful immigration reform.
“The federal government basically is saying, ‘we’re not going to solve the problem. We’re going to let the locals deal with it somehow. We’re going to let our own enforcement people try to deal with it,’” Pastor said. “And the federal government has given ICE mission impossible.”