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On March 18, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would focus its removal efforts on people with criminal backgrounds who are subject to mandatory detention and on people who posed “safety risks” to the public. In spite of the policy change, the agency’s presence is still acutely felt in Washington, D.C., thanks in part to continued raids and a massive COVID-19 outbreak at a nearby ICE detention center.
D.C. considers itself a sanctuary city, and Mayor Muriel Bowser touts the Immigrant Justice Legal Service grant program, which funds legal services, “Know Your Rights” workshops, and other resources, as evidence of her administration’s commitment to undocumented residents. The Bowser administration committed $2.5 million to the program for 2020.
In June, D.C.’s government facilitated additional relief for undocumented people that COVID-19 impacted. In partnership with the Greater Washington Community Foundation and Events DC, the Executive Office of the Mayor supported the distribution of a $5 million relief fund for undocumented workers.
“On any given day, the D.C. Government provides for our residents when they seek medical care, attend school, or call police for help regardless of their status,” John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a post announcing the relief fund.
Whether undocumented community members are actually adequately protected by D.C.’s sanctuary policies is still a matter of controversy. Just last summer, documents obtained by City Paper through a public records request revealed that D.C.’s Department of Corrections had been honoring detainers from ICE by alerting the federal agency in advance when they released undocumented people from custody.
New sanctuary legislation from the D.C. Council was passed in response to the DOC’s policy. The law, which explicitly forbids the DOC from honoring ICE detainers, is temporary and expires on Oct. 9, 2020, but a public hearing on a permanent version of the legislation is scheduled for Oct. 1.
“ICE has created an unsafe, fearful environment for the District’s immigrant residents,” says a resolution attached to the Council’s sanctuary legislation. “When the District cooperates with ICE, trust in District agencies by the immigrant community erodes, and public safety is compromised. Immigrant residents become less likely to seek the help of District agencies, particularly law enforcement.”
One councilmember, Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, has even suggested that members of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department work with ICE, in spite of policies that restrict the District from contributing resources to federal immigration enforcement activities.
Court documents obtained by City Paper appear to corroborate this. According to the documents, MPD contacted ICE at least twice with information about an undocumented person.
The documents say the first incident occurred in December 2019, a month to the day after Mayor Bowser signed the Sanctuary Values Temporary Amendment Act, which limits D.C.’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The second incident is described as having occurred in January 2020, at the same library where, in November 2016, Mayor Bowser told protestors “we are a sanctuary city and our policies are clear.”
ICE denies that the contacts described in the sworn affidavit from an ICE deportation officer ever happened. MPD says they had “no information on [their] end to suggest that MPD notified ICE about the undocumented individual named in the affidavit.”
The first instance of collaboration described in the court documents occurred on Dec. 18, 2019, when MPD officers arrested an undocumented individual in the Columbia Heights Target. According to an incident report, the individual was charging their phone in the cafe area when Target security called the police. Target employees had barred the individual from the store the previous day.
“MPD notified ICE of [the undocumented person’s] arrest for misdemeanor unlawful entry while [they were] present inside a shopping mall,” says the affidavit by an ICE deportation officer.
“The DC Department of Corrections, where [the undocumented person] was being held, prohibited ICE from interviewing [them], and [they were] subsequently released.”
According to a document filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office requesting the individual be released to ICE custody, D.C.’s Department of Corrections appears to be following the letter of the Council’s sanctuary law.
“[F]ederal agents from ICE have reported recent experiences in which the D.C. Jail has failed to honor detainers, and instead, released defendants who have no lawful authority to reside in the United States directly into the community,” wrote an assistant U.S. attorney.
Christine Miller, treasurer of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A, which includes the part of Columbia Heights where the first incident occurred, says she has heard rumors about similar ICE activities in the area before. She believes such talk agitates an already nervous relationship between undocumented people and the D.C. government.
“It erodes a trust that’s already thin and was made thinner when Trump took office,” says Miller. “They don’t always trust the people who are supposed to be protecting them … How can I send someone in my community who needs help to the police if there is a breakdown and they are worried they’ll be handed over to ICE?”
The undocumented individual was homeless at the time of the Target incident, and was identified by their Catholic Charities ID. When asked for an address, they listed that of a church that provides services for homeless people.
The Target where the first incident occurred is just a block from where protesters held a demonstration last summer condemning ICE raids in Columbia Heights. (ICE performed raids in the neighborhood in the summers of 2018 and 2019.)
“Not everyone in this government has gotten the message,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, addressing protestors at the 2019 demonstration. “Not everyone understands there are consequences for working with ICE.”
The deportation officer’s affidavit also describes a second incident, this one in early January, during which MPD contacted ICE about the same individual.
“On January 4, 2020, MPD notified ICE that on January 3, 2020, [the undocumented person] had been arrested,” the affidavit states.
It was raining on the day a library police officer approached the undocumented individual while they were drinking a beer in front of the Mount Pleasant Library. According to an incident report, the library police officer told the individual to leave, and a physical struggle ensued when they refused. MPD arrived to assist the library police officer and the undocumented individual was arrested. At the time the affidavit was filed, the undocumented person was in ICE custody, awaiting deportation.
“MPD has stated on multiple occasions to ANC 1D that they do not coordinate or collaborate with ICE,” says Jon Stewart, an ANC commissioner in the Mount Pleasant area. “It would be outrageous and a breach of trust with the neighborhood if that’s not true.”
According to the “Policy on Immigration Enforcement” page on the MPD website, the Department will “issue a media communication explaining the operation and the nature of MPD’s role after any action that involves both MPD and immigration officials.” None of the posts on MPD’s newsroom page from the dates of the Target incident or the library incident refer to communications with ICE. The immigration enforcement page also reiterates MPD’s commitment to not asking about citizenship or residency status and says that “violations of that policy will not be tolerated.”
After viewing the affidavit, Julie Mao, a local immigration attorney working with Just Futures Law, says MPD’s actions appear to be a clear violation of the District’s sanctuary legislation.
“I’ve seen a couple of these complaints filed that show MPD collaboration with ICE,” says Mao. “This is not an isolated incident.”
In August 2019, Nadeau told City Paper that there were “instances where we know that individual MPD officers have cooperated with ICE.” Citing the safety of her constituents, she declined to further elaborate at that time.
Earlier that same summer, MPD tweeted a video reaffirming their commitment to sanctuary policies. In the video, an MPD officer says that “as members of the Metropolitan Police Department, we are committed to protecting all immigrant populations, regardless of your status. We are here to build trust on a daily basis and safeguard you, your family, and the broader community … The bottom line is, MPD does not enforce federal immigration laws.”
As a councilmember, Mayor Bowser voted for the Immigration Detainer Compliance Amendment Act, which restricted the District’s compliance with ICE detainers to cases in which detainees were over 18 and had been convicted of violent or dangerous crimes.
“Being a sanctuary city means we are not an agent of the federal government,” Bowser said at a press conference called in response to President Donald Trump’s 2017 attempt to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities. “It means our police can focus on serving D.C. residents … If you call the police, you’re going to get help from your government.”
But activists critical of Bowser say her administration has not done enough to create a safe environment for undocumented people.
“(Bowser) wants to consider D.C. a sanctuary city but does nothing to make that happen,” an organizer from the Justice for Muslims Collective said at a 2018 demonstration outside the Wilson Center, according to Street Sense.
Alex Taliadoros, an organizer with immigrants rights group Sanctuary DMV, believes the incidents described in the affidavit are indicative of a broader pattern of behavior. Sanctuary DMV shared a redacted version of the affidavit with City Paper after the National Immigrant Justice Center found it while doing research for a report on prosecutions for illegal entry and re-entry.
“Based on what we have seen, this case is indicative of how MPD treats undocumented people in their custody,” says Taliadoros.
In an email exchange, ICE flatly denied that MPD communicated with the agency as described in the affidavit. A media spokesperson for the agency wrote in a June email that their Washington field office received an “automatic notification” about the Target arrest. After the arrest at the library, the spokesperson says ICE “received notification of a biometric match,” which prompted them to issue a detainer.
When asked where the “automatic notification” came from, ICE’s spokesperson explained that when a person is booked into “local custody” and fingerprinted, their prints are sent to the Department of Justice so the DOJ can check the arrestee’s outstanding warrants and criminal history. The DOJ in turn shares those fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, which runs them through their Automated Biometric Identification System. ICE receives an automatic notification when the fingerprint submissions match their immigration records.
The spokesperson also linked to ICE’s page on the Secure Communities program. Secure Communities, launched in the late Bush-era and expanded under the Obama administration, is an information sharing system described by ICE as a “common sense way to carry out ICE’s enforcement priorities for those aliens detained in the custody of another law enforcement agency.”
Under Secure Communities, the FBI shares fingerprints received from local jurisdictions with DHS and ICE. According to the Secure Communities page on the ICE website, “If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable, ICE takes enforcement action.”
Although the program was officially discontinued partway through the Obama administration, ICE’s website says “biometric interoperability has remained constant” in D.C. and all 50 states since 2013. Trump reactivated the program by executive order in 2017.
In an email exchange, an MPD representative said the department does not participate in Secure Communities, although they did acknowledge that they share fingerprints with the FBI, except in the case of some minor violations such as disorderly conduct or speeding. The FBI declined to comment on whether fingerprints they receive from MPD are shared with DHS.
Calling any jurisdiction a sanctuary city is a legally nebulous proposition to begin with, according to Immigration Voice, a pro-immigrant nonprofit. The group’s “Immigration 101” page says there is “no single definition of what is a sanctuary city.” In an article entitled “What are sanctuary cities?” CNN says that sanctuary city is a “broad term applied to jurisdictions that have policies in place designed to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions.”
Viridiana Martinez, an immigration activist, has a more radical theory: Sanctuary cities are a myth.
“It’s what we’ve been saying for a long time,” says Martinez.
As a Deferred Action for Child Arrivals recipient, Martinez has firsthand knowledge of the perils undocumented people face in the U.S. In spite of this, she works on the bleeding edge of immigration activism, once going so far as to intentionally get herself detained at a Florida ICE facility run by the Geo Group to help disseminate advocacy strategies to those inside, many of whom were, in her estimation, saddled with inadequate legal representation. Martinez currently works in North Carolina with Alerta Migratoria, a community hotline that supports undocumented immigrants and refugees. (Martinez adds that a lot of her job consists of talking to “White liberals who don’t want to push their elected officials to protect immigrants.”)
D.C. makes a strong case study for Martinez’s theory on sanctuary cities. One of the major loopholes in D.C.’s sanctuary status comes in the form of D.C. Superior Court, which, despite functioning as D.C.’s local courthouse, is staffed by the U.S. Marshals Service, a federal agency. USMS honors ICE detainers, so undocumented people suspected of even minor infractions can find themseves in ICE custody after what might have been a short trip to court for a U.S. citizen.
ICE also unilaterally performs raids in D.C. In July 2018, ICE detained more than 100 people in the D.C. area in what it called “Operation Eagle’s Shield.” There were reports of ICE using racial profiling to detain people off the street. ICE returned to detain more people from D.C. the next summer.
“These laws and resolutions are passed, but ICE has federal jurisdiction,” says Martinez. “They can show up anywhere and anytime.”