The matter on the table was simple enough; the meeting should have been routine.
Since October, King County sheriff’s deputies had incurred more than $3,000 in overtime working on a narcotics task force set up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
A Metropolitan King County Council subcommittee was asked to authorize a new agreement that would simply allow the county to be reimbursed by the feds.
But subcommittee members last month didn’t count on hearing from immigrants-rights advocates still angry about what they say were ongoing ICE efforts to round up and deport some immigrants.
So a routine matter that would have been dispensed with in minutes has spilled over into a debate about whether local police can coordinate law enforcement with immigration authorities without alienating some immigrant groups.
For about an hour that mid-August morning, a half-dozen advocates spoke before the council’s Law, Justice and Human Services Committee about the drawbacks of any alliance between local police and ICE.
Blindsided, committee members tabled the overtime-payment matter for further study; its current status is unclear.
ICE was created when Customs enforcement merged with the investigations arm of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. The main focus of its Seattle task force is halting traffic in “B.C. Bud”—a $6 billion-a-year enterprise that involves the flow of marijuana from British Columbia into Western Washington and the laundering or smuggling of the proceeds back into Canada.
Advocates said that regardless of the task force’s purpose, some immigrants are reluctant to cooperate with local law enforcement if they think their immigration status could come into question.
“It has a huge impact on people reporting crime, victims coming forward,” said Karol Brown, acting policy coordinator for Hate Free Zone Washington, who spoke at the hearing.
“Mistrust between immigrants and the police is the last thing you want.”
Failure to authorize the agreement would mean the county won’t be reimbursed for overtime paid to deputies assigned to the task force, said County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, chairwoman of the committee. But regardless of what action the council eventually takes, the Sheriff’s Office will remain a member of the ICE task force, which also includes Renton and Seattle police officers.
“At the end of the day, this is about a drug-enforcement initiative with a federal organization that we’ve had partnerships with for as long as I can recall,” said Pat Lee, chief of the criminal-investigation division of the Sheriff’s Office.
Local advocates say they won’t back away from this one. And the controversy they’ve stirred may help highlight the challenges of a newly configured federal agency that can’t hide its immigration-service roots.
“This is not a new concept. The thing that is new is the name ‘immigration’ is now in the title, and that scares people,” said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle.
Hundreds of joint-agency task forces exist across the U.S.—including five in this state, he said.
“The immigration work we do is only one component of the many things we’ve done for many years: the investigation of narcotics smuggling, money laundering, child pornography, international commercial fraud through our ports.”
The federal government estimates that 60 percent of the marijuana entering the U.S. at the Canadian border is tied to criminal organizations in the Seattle area.
“If we’re not working with these local agencies, taxpayers in communities affected by this drug activity are shorted their due,” Winchell said.
But he acknowledged, too, that ICE agents won’t turn a blind eye if they encounter undocumented immigrants in the course of drug enforcement. “We’re faced with dealing with immigration,” he said. “But that’s not our stated purpose. We are targeting financial crimes, the very people who prey on immigrant communities.”
While immigrant advocates say they understand the need to address the region’s drug problem, Brown said, “these ICE officials are the same ones out doing immigration-enforcement activities, and that makes immigrant communities nervous and fearful.”
The advocates fret that the county’s arrangement with ICE does not specifically limit activities of the task force to “crime fighting and drug busting.”
“We’ve found that in terms of the structure of ICE under DHS, there’s no mechanism for review of civil- or human-rights violations and how they can be held accountable,” said Carlos Marentes, with the Committee for General Amnesty and Social Justice, who heads a coalition of advocates called ICE Melt.
Both the Seattle police and King County Sheriff’s Office cooperate with a number of federal agencies, such as the federal Marshals Service and the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies on the ICE task force share in the assets seized from smugglers.
But the city of Seattle has an ordinance prohibiting police and other city workers from asking about the immigration status of people they come in contact with. The county doesn’t have a similar regulation.
Lee of the Sheriff’s Office said county deputies don’t make immigration law enforcement a priority.
“We know the work is really ongoing to build trust in (immigrant) communities,” Lee said.
But in investigating crimes committed by illegal immigrants, deputies are obligated to notify immigration authorities, he said.
Referring to the overtime reimbursement, Lambert, the chairwoman of the County Council committee, said, “The irony here is some of these people will need the very social services that these funds might help to pay for. It will hurt them if it’s not passed.
“We cannot change federal law. We can’t tell [ICE] not to enforce immigration laws, for heaven’s sake.”