Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Between January 2016 and June 2019, the District of Columbia’s Department of Corrections handed 43 undocumented immigrants over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a document City Paper received in a Freedom of Information Act request. 

The document shows a month-by-month tally of undocumented immigrants who federal agents picked up from facilities in D.C. after the DOC received an ICE detainer from the Department of Homeland Security. An ICE detainer asks an institution to provide a 48 hour warning before releasing an undocumented inmate from custody. The detainers also request up to 48 hours of additional hold-time so that the feds can arrange to intercept the person being released.

DOC policy states that the department does not comply with the component of an ICE detainer requesting that they hold undocumented people up to 48 hours after their scheduled release times. The D.C. DOC will, however, provide ICE with the 48 hour warning before releasing an inmate with an ICE detainer. 

The DOC alsoallows ICE to pick inmates up early when federal agents arrive at a DOC facility before an inmate’s scheduled departure on the day the inmate is scheduled to be released. The FOIA document containing the data on ICE pickups notes that the DOC “does not refuse to allow ICE to pick up an inmate if ICE arrives before the inmate departs the facility.” 

According to activists and lawyers who work with undocumented people in D.C., ICE alsosometimes waits outside DOC facilities to detain undocumented people shortly after their scheduled release times. These alleged cases come in addition to the 43 undocumented immigrants who federal agents picked up directly from facilities in D.C. between January 2016 and June 2019.

Claudia Quinonez, a local organizer with youth focused immigrant rights group United We Dream, says that policies like the DOC’s concerning ICE detainers undermine the foundation of D.C.’s supposed sanctuary city status. 

Quinonez attended a recent meeting in which DOC Director Quincy Booth fielded questions from activists and immigration lawyers. 

“The DOC said that the reason they were transferring people over to ICE was because it was … how things had always had been,” Quinonez tells City Paper. “And it’s something that Director Booth actually has the power to stop immediately if he wanted to.”

The DOC did not return City Paper’s requests for comment. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen recently sent a letter to Booth asking a series of questions concerning the department’s relationship with ICE, including whether the DOC asks inmates about their immigration status and whether ICE is allowed in DOC facilities. As of this writing the councilmember has not yet received an answer to his inquiry.

Allen points out that, although the DOC is not required to respond to ICE detainer requests with information about when inmates will be released, there are other ways for ICE to obtain the data anyway. In Allen’s view, the DOC plays a largely passive role in the matter of ICE pick-ups from their facilities. 

“They’re not contacting ICE and saying, ‘Hey, we want to give you a roster of the folks that are being released coming out next week so you can check those names…’ The communication never initiates with DOC to ICE,” Allen says. “I do believe however the Department of Corrections is being responsive to ICE, so when ICE contacts them they are responding… But they’re under no legal obligation to do that. And that’s what I think the law is clear about, and that’s what we’re trying to dig into.”

Activists who attended the meeting with the DOC director say that Booth told them the department alerts ICE to an inmate’s release whenever they receive a detainer request.

D.C.’s “sanctuary city” status has several founding documents, including a 2011 executive order signed by then-Mayor Vince Gray and a piece of legislation passed by the D.C. Council in 2012 called the Immigration Detainer Compliance Amendment Act. The executive order from Gray instructs public safety agencies in the District to refrain from contacting ICE to enforce immigration laws unless the action is related to a criminal investigation. The Council’s legislation says an ICE detainer shouldn’t be honored unless the detainer’s subject is a person over 18 who has been convicted of a violent or dangerous crime. (It is unclear how many of the 43 cases listed in the document fall into this category.)

Mayor Muriel Bowser, who voted for the 2012 legislation when she was the Ward 4 councilmember, has also repeatedly reaffirmed her position that D.C. is and should be a sanctuary city. The far-right Center For Immigration Studies has even identified D.C. as a “Super Sanctuary,” citing policies that help to provide undocumented immigrants with legal services and assistance with filing asylum applications. 

But immigration advocates question D.C.’s status as a “sanctuary city.” Although there is no strict legal definition of what makes a sanctuary city, they are generally understood to be cities where the local government declines to cooperate with federal immigration agents. 

The DOC is not the only weak point in D.C.’s sanctuary city status. D.C.’s role as the federal city makes a generally complicated situation for undocumented people mixed up in the criminal justice system. 

When an undocumented person is arrested and brought to D.C. Superior Court, they can be taken into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, a federal law enforcement agency. The U.S. Marshals are not answerable to D.C.’s local government and can turn undocumented people over to ICE without conflict, as they did in the case of Benjamin Ordoñez, who ended up in ICE custody after attending a court hearing. (Ordoñez was accused of stealing a purse.) 

Even if an undocumented person who has been arrested manages to avoid being passed from the U.S. Marshals to ICE, they can still later end up the subject of an ICE detainer if ICE is made aware of their presence in a DOC facility. 

At a recent demonstration condemning ICE raids in Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau told a crowd of protestors that “not everyone in [D.C.] government has gotten the message” about not working with ICE. Nadeau tells City Paper she was concerned about ICE’s trips to DOC facilities, which she said have become more frequent in the past couple of years. She is also looking at the relationship between ICE and another agency integral to D.C.’s criminal justice system: the Metropolitan Police Department.

“We have instances where we know that individual MPD officers have cooperated with ICE,” Nadeau says. “One of the things I’ve been working on is trying to tamp down that behavior by individual.” 

Nadeau says she is unable to provide proof of the allegation regarding MPD because doing so might compromise the safety of her constituents. In response to a request for comment on Nadeau’s claims, a spokesperson for MPD says that the department does not ask about immigration status or enforce civil immigration laws. “D.C.’s immigrant community is a vital part of our city, which we continue to serve,” the MPD spokesperson says.

Still, Quinonez of United We Dream does not feel confident that the criminal justice system in D.C. treats undocumented immigrants equitably. 

“People are under the impression that D.C. is a sanctuary city that protects and welcomes everyone, all immigrants,” says Quinonez. “We are under the impression that we are protected. But the truth is we are not.”