When Tamara Jimenez’s friend Ivan stopped in at the North Philadelphia bakery where she works about two years ago, she never dreamed it was the last time she would ever see him.
“We just had a small talk,” she explains. “I wished him goodbye and the next day his wife came to the bakery and told us that he got arrested.”
Jimenez says a police traffic stop got her friend detained for a couple days, then transferred to immigration custody and eventually deported back to Colombia.
“It was just in a blink of an eye it happened — I never thought it was going to happen to him or someone close that I knew,” she said.
Until recently, Philadelphia honored a couple of hundred immigration detainers a year. Those are requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold onto suspects until the federal agency can take custody. They’re placed both on immigrants in the country illegally and legal permanent residents who have committed deportable offenses.
But, while federal immigration reform looks officially off the table for this year, an increasing number of local municipalities are joining cities like Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey, that have begun turning down requests in an attempt to take immigration matters into their own hands.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter mayor signed an executive order in April, essentially ending that practice here. Maria Quinones-Sanchez, the city’s only Latino councilwoman, pushed hard for the change, and celebrated at the public announcement.
“This victory is so huge,” she told an audience of city officials and immigration advocates, “not only for the city of Philadelphia but for the rest of the country, and for those of you who do immigrant work and know the faces behind the stories, the people who have suffered that we couldn’t save before.”
Philadelphia joined places like Cook County, Illinois, Newark, and parts of California that had limited or ended their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
William Stock, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says this is the one way cities feel they can affect immigration policy.
“I think communities that are standing up to say we are not cooperating with detainers are saying and we are for that path to a legal status,” he said. “We are for full integration for these people who after all are here because they want to be Americans.”
ICE declined requests for an interview for this story. Spokeswoman Nicole Navas sent a statement saying that ICE is trying to make sure “that dangerous individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”
In December of 2012, the agency says it issued guidelines to steer agents away from issuing detainers for suspects apprehended for “minor misdemeanor offenses,” including traffic offenses.
Dan Cadman worked in immigration enforcement for decades and is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. Cadman says politics shouldn’t keep municipalities from turning over somebody who has gotten in trouble.
“It makes sense in those instances after their interaction with the state criminal justice system is over, that if they are removable that ICE do what it is charged with doing and remove them from the United States,” Cadman said.
He doesn’t believe immigration advocates who say police cooperation with ICE makes immigrants afraid to report crimes. He says municipalities may very well have been scared by recent court decisions.
Ernesto Gallarza, a U.S.-born Latino man, was picked up on drug charges in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania and held for immigration. He sued the county, which claimed it had only followed an ICE order. But ICE said it was only a request. In March, a federal court found the county liable for damages.
Other counties in the region stopped honoring detainers in response. David Owens, the head of corrections for Camden County, New Jersey, says he didn’t want to stop working with ICE.
“As a law enforcement officer, of course I have concerns about releasing someone to the street with a gun charge, with a charge of violence,” Owens said, I’ve sworn to protect the citizens.”
But since the court ruled against Lehigh County for holding Ernesto Gallarza, Owens feels he can’t keep someone on an immigration detainer after he’s finished their criminal proceedings.
And while, for now, only about 200 jurisdictions have similar policies, more and more are joining that group every month.