While an executive order banning certain travelers from entering the United States captured more attention, another change to national immigration enforcement already has some local attorneys and law enforcement officials wondering what compliance might look like.
The “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” executive order was signed by President Donald Trump in late January, bringing some of his more notable campaign promises — like a wall along the Mexican border — to the forefront of his administration’s early agenda.
As recently as Feb. 18, Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly issued a memorandum putting those directives into practice. Lindsay Mims, an immigration attorney in Mobile, said that based on what she’s seen, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is already picking up the pace.
“They’re picking up pretty much anybody in jail on an ICE hold now, which is different than it was before the administration changed,” Mims said. “Now, ICE is showing up and telling cops in places like Bayou la Batre, ‘You need to hold them longer and keep them until we get there.’”
Mims said that could prove challenging because not all jails have the authority or funding to house someone until ICE can transport them to a detention facility. For smaller municipal jails, that means using limited space to hold someone brought in on a misdemeanor without any reimbursement from the federal government.
Even at Mobile Metro Jail, Deputy Warden Sam Houston said there’s currently “no agreement with the government” to take in persons for immigration violations. He said Metro only houses removable aliens if they have been brought in on another federal or local charge.
“The person would be turned over to ICE, and they would relocate them to a facility that’s designed to help them with an immigration violation,” Houston said. “We’re not obligated to hold them, and there’s no method for us to be reimbursed for housing those people here.”
According to Mobile County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lori Myles, the only way Metro would hold an inmate due to their immigration status is if the federal government sent a written request for detention, and then it would only be done “temporarily.”
Mims, however, claimed she’s never received documentation of ICE holds placed on clients she’s had in custody at Metro, and in fact has never been able to find any official record of where a recent client was taken after he was picked up by ICE in Mobile.
“If I wasn’t in touch with family members speaking to him on the phone as he’s being transported, I wouldn’t have any way to represent him until he was picked up by the federal system,” Mims said. “You should have a paper trail on people if you’re going to lock them up, and right now they don’t.”
Once their criminal charges are addressed, aliens on an immigration hold are typically transferred to detention centers by federal immigration officials, as most local law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources or funding to relocate them. There is no ICE facility in Alabama; currently, the closest facility is in Louisiana.
In the past, if ICE has failed to pick up inmates by the time their criminal charges are resolved, Mims said some jails and city lockups have released them regardless of their immigration status, mostly because the jails lack the authority and resources to keep them.
Going forward, though, that practice could put facilities out of compliance with Trump’s executive order, which also authorizes ICE to publish weekly reports of all “non-federal jurisdictions that release aliens from their custody” and potentially withhold unspecified federal funding.
Mims said she expects the number of aliens subject to ICE holds in local jails will increase as well now that Trump has rescinded an Obama-era policy that focused deportation efforts on aliens engaged in or suspected of terrorism, gang activity or convicted of certain offenses.
Under Trump’s policies, the definition for those priority removals has been expanded to include those convicted of or charged with “any criminal offense” as well as those who “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”
ICE has also wasted no time conducting its first major immigration operation under the Trump administration. A series of large-scale raids earlier this month resulted in the arrest of roughly 680 people across 12 states, though those numbers aren’t inconsistent with weekly deportation averages during the early years of Barrack Obama’s administration.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, of which Mims is a member, has been critical of how abrupt the implementation of Trump’s executive order changes have been, which they claim has caused confusion among local jails and immigration attorneys trying to comply with the changing law.
“One of the issues with these changes, frankly, is that when they were rolled out, nothing was defined — there was nothing to say, ‘this is how this is going to go into effect,’” Mims said. “That just leaves people at the local level scrambling, especially in an area like Mobile that is very pro-Trump, generally. Our government and our localities will want to try and comply.”
Local law enforcement agencies might soon be asked to directly participate in Trump’s immigration overhaul through two programs that allow qualified local law enforcement and corrections officers to take on some federal immigration duties.
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Department is currently the only agency in Alabama that has such an agreement with the U.S. government, although the Department of Homeland Security is currently in the process of expanding the use of those programs “in any willing jurisdiction.”
Officials with the Mobile Police Department and the MCSO say they’ve not yet been asked to participate, and that it is unclear at this time how they would respond to such a request.
Myles would only say that the MCSO typically has a cooperative relationship with federal officers.
For the MPD, though, making active attempts to identify and detain illegal aliens would be a notable turnaround. According to a memo from Maj. John Barber, commander of MPD’s Field Operations Division, the department’s standard procedure is that a person’s immigration status is to “solely and exclusively be determined by the federal government.”
“Law enforcement officers cannot check the citizenship or immigration status of a person if the person has not committed a crime nor is a suspect of a criminal offense,” the memo reads.
“Individuals who are encountered through casual contact or who contact police as victims cannot have their immigration status checked under the Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.”
Multiple calls to the ICE regional field office in New Orleans seeking input for this report were not returned.