Credit: DARROW MONTGOMERY

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Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen is introducing legislation next Tuesday that bars D.C. from cooperating with federal immigration agencies in civil immigration enforcement actions. A vote is also scheduled for Tuesday.   

Mayor Muriel Bowser has repeatedly said that D.C. is a sanctuary city, but local immigration advocates have long questioned whether that’s true. 

There is reason to be skeptical. The D.C. Department of Corrections handed 43 undocumented immigrants over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement between January 2016 and June 2019, according to a document obtained by City Paper through a public records request. DOC doesn’t have a policy of holding undocumented inmates, but it does alert federal law enforcement. Federal agents are able to pick up undocumented immigrants thanks to ICE detainers, which ask an institution to provide a 48-hour warning before releasing them from custody. That gives ICE time to pick them up. 

Allen’s bill, titled the “Sanctuary Values Emergency Amendment Act of 2019,” aims to end ICE cooperation where it can. The bill specifically says, absent a judicial warrant or order, the District cannot communicate release dates, locations, or any criminal case information with ICE. Nor can it hold an individual after they’ve been released. Additionally, the District cannot grant ICE access to any detention facility, including DOC, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and St. Elizabeths Hospital. 

“Councilmember Allen feels confident the Council will be supportive of this legislation,” says his spokesman, Erik Salmi.

Should the emergency bill pass, the bill will take effect immediately for 90 days. Allen will introduce permanent legislation soon thereafter, Salmi says. 

“Immigrants are a valuable and essential part of the District,” the bill says. “The District has a responsibility to ensure that all residents are respected and able to interact with public safety officials without fear of adverse civil immigration action.” 

But because federal agencies have such significant reach in local D.C., Allen’s bill leaves cracks in the system through which immigrants can slip. Take the case of Benjamin Ordoñez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who ended up in ICE detention after stealing a purse at a salsa dancing social in D.C. ICE was able to pick up Ordoñez in the courtroom after filing a detainer with the U.S. Marshals Service, federal agents who provide security outside of D.C. courtrooms. The misdemeanor theft charge that initially brought Ordoñez to D.C. Superior Court was disposed of in September, but he nonetheless was forced into a long and devastating journey through the criminal justice and immigration systems. He got out of detention, but agreed to voluntary departure, he tells City Paper.

“Physically I’m OK, but emotionally, mentally, it’s hard for me to just go out in the street,” says Ordoñez. “For a while I didn’t want to see friends. I just went into hiding … My whole future has come tumbling down.” 

Immigration advocates are supporting the bill. “We need your help to make this bill a reality,” said Sanctuary DMV on Twitter, asking followers to contact the Council and tell members to vote for it.

The bill needs nine votes support to pass.

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