Immigration and Customs Enforcement is suspending a recently adopted practice of reporting cities that don't cooperate with federal detention efforts after the first few reports were plagued by errors.
The new policy, an attempt to pressure cities and counties that refuse to hold people in the country illegally for immigration agents, was a priority for President Trump. Last month, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions promised to push back against these "sanctuary cities," possibly by denying them federal funds and using other methods of pressure.
The weekly "declined detainer" reports by ICE were supposed to be a first step, focusing attention on jurisdictions that were releasing immigrants from jail or after arrest.
But the plan didn't go smoothly. In some cases, ICE mixed up names, confusing Franklin counties in Iowa, New York and Pennsylvania, said David Lapan, chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. In other cases, the detainees had already been picked up by ICE, or had never been released in the first place.
The reports were suspended after two weeks.
"There have been some data processing errors, and some other issues," Lapan told reporters on Tuesday. "We want to make sure we look at this holistically and make sure we are getting this as accurate as possible." The department still intends to "let the public know which jurisdictions have policies that do not assist ICE in its mission," he said, adding that he didn't know when the reports would resume.
Under the Obama administration, a program called Secure Communities enlisted local police as partners in immigration enforcement. But there was a backlash after immigrants were detained and deported after minor violations like traffic tickets. And some court rulings have questioned the legality of police or jails continuing to hold someone without due process.
One immigration rights advocate said the pullback points out the flaws in the new get-tough policy. "One of the fundamental problems with what the attorney general and President Trump are trying to do is to mobilize a massive deportation task force" by shaming and pressuring states and cities, said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. "The fact that the federal government has had to pull back and apologize is a perfect example of how the federal government is overreaching here."
Another point of contention: Just what does it mean to be a "sanctuary city?" Some cities that won't honor detainers still work with ICE, by letting the agency know when someone is about to be released. One of them is Franklin County in south central Pennsylvania, which landed on the "uncooperative" list after ICE said the county jail was not honoring requests to hold five prisoners.
"We looked at the information we had and it didn't match up with the information in the report," said David Keller, chairman of the county commission. "They said, yeah, the information is not correct, and we apologize."
"They created the impression we were not cooperating, we were releasing people to the street that they were interested in, and that just wasn't accurate," he said.
Keller says his county jail sends a list of prisoners to an ICE office every day, and the agency picks up three to four of the county's prisoners per month. "I personally think that's a good thing. We need to have rule of law," he said.
But Keller says Franklin County, like about 20 others in Pennsylvania, will not honor ICE requests to hold someone for 48 hours after their scheduled release date. In 2008, a U.S. citizen was mistakenly held for three days in Allentown, Pa., after a mistaken detainer request. He sued and received settlements of about $150,000. "We try to protect our citizens from unnecessary liability," Keller said.