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Who's in charge? Immigration advocates say Kent County should stop cooperating with ICE

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Attorneys from the Michigan ACLU and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center give comments to the Kent County Board of Commissioners

A lot of old cop movies have a scene like this one, in Die Hard -- where the feds show up and start bossing local police around.

Out in the real world, things are more complicated. Federal law enforcement can’t always just boss local law enforcement around. And that’s a key part of a big controversy happening right now in Kent County.

The controversy is about immigration enforcement.

Immigration is a federal issue, handled by federal law enforcement.

But if someone gets arrested and booked in a local county jail, their fingerprints and personal information get sent to the feds.

And if the feds look at that info and think the person has violated immigration laws, they can ask the county to hold them an extra couple days in the jail cell.

No county in Michigan gets more of these requests than Kent County. Data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University shows that over the past decade, Kent County has gotten about 2,000 detainer requests - more than double the number of any other county in the state.

The sheriff of Kent County, Michelle Young says once those requests arrive, the county has to comply.

“It’s not for us to determine if the legal process that congress set out is fair or if it’s appropriate or sufficient,” Sheriff Young says. “It’s my job to facilitate the legal execution of those laws of Congress.”

"It's an administrative warrant," says attorney Hillary Scholten about ICE detainer requests. "It's not a judicial warrant. There's a big difference."

But this is not how the ACLU sees it. And it’s not how attorneys from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center see it.

Hillary Scholten is attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She spoke at the last meeting of the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

She said this process, what’s called a detainer request, it doesn’t require the county to do anything at all.

“It’s an administrative warrant,” Scholten said. “It’s not a judicial warrant. There’s a big difference. A detainer is simply a request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a local law enforcement agency to hold an individual for immigration purposes.”

Local law enforcement doesn’t have to do what the feds say. The feds aren’t in charge.

Courts, by the way, have solidly agreed with this view. Local law enforcement is not required to comply with or honor administrative warrants from federal immigration officers. That’s because of the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, which says all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.

And there are other sheriffs in Michigan who choose not to comply.

Credit Ingham County Sheriff's Office
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth

Scott Wrigglesworth is Sheriff of Ingham County. He stopped honoring detainer requests about a year ago.

“The main reason as the new sheriff is these requests from ICE aren’t from the judicial branch of government,” Wrigglesworth says.

Not from the judicial branch, which Wrigglesworth says means there’s not much of a valid legal reason for holding someone extra time.

He says if he hears from immigration officers about someone in his jail, he just calls them and lets them know when that person is getting out. The federal officers can come pick them up as soon as they’re released.

After a year of this policy, he says it’s been pretty uncontroversial.

Activists have been trying to get Kent County to take the same approach. They’ve disrupted County Commission meetings to try to press the issue. But the decision on detainers rests entirely with the Sheriff’s department. And the sheriff’s department says it’s not changing the policy anytime soon.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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