Officials dispute claim that Wichita is a ‘sanctuary city’ for illegal immigrants

Jim Steinle, second from left, father of Kathryn Steinle, in photograph, testifies next to Montgomery County (Md.) Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, right, before a Senate Judiciary hearing on July 21 to examine the administration's immigration enforcement policies. Kathryn Steinle was killed on a San Francisco pier, allegedly by a man previously deported several times.
Jim Steinle, second from left, father of Kathryn Steinle, in photograph, testifies next to Montgomery County (Md.) Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, right, before a Senate Judiciary hearing on July 21 to examine the administration's immigration enforcement policies. Kathryn Steinle was killed on a San Francisco pier, allegedly by a man previously deported several times. Associated Press

Is Wichita a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants?

At least one national group that tracks immigration policy says yes, naming Sedgwick County as one of more than 275 jurisdictions in the country that do not honor requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates suspected of immigration violations.

Local officials, however, say that the label is misleading – “sanctuary city” is a political term, not a legal one, they said – and that local law enforcement regularly cooperates with federal immigration agents.

“Nothing could be further from the truth here,” said Lt. Lin Dehning, spokesman for the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.

“We assist ICE. We fully cooperate with ICE. But they have to have some legal basis that we’re doing this on,” he said.

“If they say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a court order,’ or ‘We’ve got an arrest warrant’ or something like that, then absolutely we’ll help them.”

Groups who advocate on behalf of illegal immigrants, meanwhile, say they don’t think Wichita protects or shelters immigrants.

“If we are a sanctuary city, we’re doing a really crappy job, because people are scared,” said Priscilla Orta-Wenner, staff attorney for Sunflower Community Action, a Wichita nonprofit that pushes to improve workplace conditions for immigrants.

“There is no sanctuary. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

‘They’re making a choice’

The issue of so-called sanctuary cities arose recently after Francisco Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant, was charged with murder in the death of Kathryn Steinle, who was shot and killed at a popular sightseeing pier in San Francisco.

Steinle’s killing brought criticism down on San Francisco because Sanchez had been deported repeatedly but was free because local officials disregarded a request from federal immigration authorities to keep him locked up.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates for immigration reduction, cites jurisdictions’ refusal to honor ICE detainers as a reason to label them as sanctuary cities, counties or states.

A map on the group’s website names six Kansas counties – Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey, Johnson, Shawnee and Finney – as sanctuary counties that “protect criminal aliens from deportation by refusing to comply with ICE detainers.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the group, authored the report on which the sanctuary cities map is based. The report, “Rejecting Detainers, Endangering Communities,” is based on ICE records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request filed last October, she said.

“I’ve been following this issue for a number of years, and I think it’s important for the public and policy makers to understand exactly how many jurisdictions have these (sanctuary) policies,” Vaughan said.

“Not only where they are, but also the major public safety issues at stake.”

According to the report, during the first eight months of 2014, local jurisdictions released more than 8,100 immigrants sought by ICE for deportation. Nearly two-thirds of those freed had prior criminal histories or were labeled a public safety concern at the time of their release, the report says.

Of those released, nearly 1,900 subsequently were arrested for another crime within the eight-month period, the report says.

“Until what happened in San Francisco, a lot of people felt this was kind of a benign policy, but it isn’t benign,” Vaughan said. “It is a serious issue.”

Dehning, of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, said holding people in jail at the request of federal officials – with no criminal charge, warrant or court order – is illegal.

“An ICE detainer, even though that sounds like a fancy term, is really nothing more than a request by an ICE agent for us to hold somebody in jail,” Dehning said. “And the Third Circuit (Court of Appeals) said you can’t do that.”

Many jails across the country, including Sedgwick County’s, changed their practices regarding ICE requests last year, following a March 2014 court ruling in Pennsylvania.

In that case – Galarza v. Szalczyk – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that officials unjustly held Ernesto Galarza past the date he posted bail on suspicion that he might be an illegal immigrant. Three days after he was supposed to be released, immigration officials found Galarza was a U.S. citizen, according to the ruling.

Prior to the ruling, Sedgwick County Jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally were detained an additional 24 to 48 hours to allow ICE time to take the person into custody.

Now, some jails – about 10 percent, according to the report – are refusing to grant ICE requests automatically, and the policy has resulted in those jurisdictions being labeled sanctuary cities.

“That’s my understanding as to where that label has come from all of a sudden,” Dehning said.

Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the label is accurate and based on information provided by ICE.

She pointed to a federal policy that requires local law enforcement agencies to notify ICE before releasing an immigrant and to hold the person for up to 48 hours to allow ICE to assume custody.

“When it comes down to it, there’s no court telling Kansas sheriffs not to honor ICE detainers,” Vaughan said. “They’re making a choice.”

Wichita’s status

City of Wichita spokesman Ken Evans said his office has received several calls, e-mails and questions on social media from residents concerned about Wichita being labeled a sanctuary city.

The Center for Immigration Studies no longer includes Wichita on its list after city officials contacted the group, shared its policies and asked to be removed, Evans said.

“The issue of (ICE) detainers is not an issue for the city because we do not operate a jail,” he said.

According to a statement the city has shared with people inquiring about sanctuary cities, “The City of Wichita does not view itself as a ‘sanctuary city,’ and many other independent local groups and individuals also do not view the city as such.”

The statement points to the Wichita Police Department’s policy regarding illegal immigrants, which states, “A Wichita police officer’s involvement with persons suspected of being in this country illegally is limited to situations where probable cause exists independently from the immigration laws.”

The policy outlines the process that officers should follow when they come across an undocumented resident, “and clearly focuses on behavior of the individual, not their status of documentation,” the statement says.

“It should be noted that if a person has previously been deported and is found to have returned, this is treated as a violation of Federal law.”

Dehning said Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputies “fully cooperate” with ICE officials who have court orders or indictments and seek help making arrests or detaining suspects.

“If they have some type of arrest warrant and they request our help, absolutely we will help them. We do not turn down other law enforcement agencies,” he said.

“We’ve gotten all sorts of phone calls about this whole sanctuary city thing, and it’s just like, well, we can’t do something that the courts have determined to be illegal, which is hold people in jail without charges.”

Orta-Wenner, the Sunflower Community Action attorney, and other advocates said they don’t consider Wichita or Kansas to be particularly friendly or welcoming to immigrants.

They point to decisions like one earlier this year by the Wichita City Council, which opted not to support a legislative proposal to grant illegal immigrants the opportunity to obtain driver’s permits. And to recent proposals by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a national leader in the movement to stop illegal immigration.

“I can’t change another organization’s definition of sanctuary city,” Orta-Wenner said. “But I can say that nobody else is claiming we are.

“Sedgwick County is not known for being some kind of immigrant haven. That is not the perception at all, at least among the immigrant community.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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