Criminal Justice
 

Immigrant rights group says Orleans sheriff has pledged not to jail people accused of violating immigration law

A week after President Donald Trump threatened to pull federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities, a New Orleans immigrant rights group says Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has pledged to continue to refuse to jail people suspected only of violating immigration law.

Since 2013, Gusman has declined most requests from federal agents to hold people suspected of being in the country illegally.

Audrey Stewart, managing director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, said earlier this week that her group had talked to the Sheriff’s Office about the issue. Thursday afternoon, she said she had received official word that the policy will remain. She was not immediately available to offer further details.

As of Thursday afternoon, Sheriff’s Office officials had not confirmed her account.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Phil Stelly said in an email Wednesday that the office was reviewing Trump’s executive order and the Sheriff’s Office policies “to ensure compliance with all federal laws.” That’s what he told The New Orleans Advocate last week.

A representative of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office referred The Lens to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last week, Trump issued an executive order threatening to cut federal funding from local government agencies that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

In response, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu vowed that the city police department “will not be President Trump’s deportation force.”

But the sheriff runs the jail. Since 2013, his office has refused to honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates after they’ve served their terms, posted bail, or had their charges dropped.

There are some exceptions. The Sheriff’s Office will honor requests to hold people with serious pending criminal charges, including murder, aggravated rape and armed robbery with a firearm. It also says it will honor court orders for continued detention.

The policy was adopted as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed by the workers center. The immigrant rights group argued that some people had been jailed far longer than two business days, which is how long immigration detainers are valid.

The suit was filed on behalf of Antonio Campo, who was held at the jail at the request of immigrations agents for three months after he had finished a sentence for battery, and Mario Cacho, held for five and a half months after serving a sentence for disturbing the peace.

Under the terms of the settlement, the policy is permanent unless there is a change in federal law.

According to a 2013 news release, the Sheriff’s Office held 192 inmates on immigration detainers in 2012.

One other major county jail system reversed a similar policy last week. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered county jails to honor all requests to detain people suspected of violating immigration law. The county began refusing the requests in 2013 because the federal government wouldn’t reimburse its costs of jailing those people.

The effect of the executive order is still unclear. It defines “sanctuary jurisdictions” as those that ban local government officials from communicating with federal immigration enforcement agencies. A federal law prohibits any policy that restricts public employees from sharing information about someone’s immigration status with federal immigration authorities.

Landrieu has said that a police department policy banning officers from active immigration enforcement does not meet the definition.

Under the Sheriff’s Office’s policy, deputies are not allowed to “affirmatively provide information on an inmate’s release date or address” to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It does not address whether they can share information about inmates’ immigration status, but it says deputies are not allowed to investigate their status.

Tuesday, the city of San Francisco sued the Trump administration over the executive order. The city argues that not only is Trump’s executive order illegally coercive, but the federal law it cites to define sanctuary cities is unconstitutional.

Trump has left it to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to designate sanctuary jurisdictions.

Also unclear is what federal funding might be at stake. The Supreme Court has previously held that the federal government can’t withhold funds from local or state governments unless they’re related to a federal requirement. It has also found that federal funding restrictions can’t be coercive.

Most of Gusman’s federal funding in recent years has come in the form of FEMA reimbursements to build a new jail after Hurricane Katrina, though his office also has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Justice Department grants passed through the state or the city.

Attorney Katie Schwartzmann represents jail inmates in a federal lawsuit that led to reforms to address inmate violence and substandard conditions. In an email, she said any revision to the policy must be reviewed by the parties in the lawsuit and a team of monitors overseeing the reforms.

“We believe that current OPSO policy does not conflict with the executive order,” she said in an email.

In an interview earlier this week, Stewart agreed, calling the policy “totally compliant” with the law and Trump’s order.

“It’s the exact wrong moment for the Sheriff to change the policy,” she said. “At a time when the immigrant community is under attack, we would expect the sheriff to be as good an ally as he’s been in the past.”

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