GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Sheriff’s Department's policy of detaining people for federal immigration officials continues to spark controversy and protest and has now drawn the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU is asking the county to stop cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but county officials say it’s not that easy.
ICE detention policies have enflamed passions nationwide and disrupted Kent County Board of Commissioners meetings.
At Thursday’s meeting, there was less passion and more legal arguments as attorneys with the ACLU and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center cited legal opinions to try to convince commissioners that the county is not obligated to detain people at the behest of ICE. The immigration attorneys told commissioners that they can end the problem if they really want to.
"What we’ve over and over again from the county commission and the sheriff’s department is, 'There’s nothing we can do about this, our hands are tied,' and that’s simply not true. There’s so much that you as commissioners can do and that the sheriff’s department can do to end this destructive practice," Hillary Scholten, an attorney for the Michigan Immigrants’ Rights Center, said.
"Your community does not want you to subsidize family separation. Make it clear that if ICE wants to tear our community apart, they’re not going to do it with our dollars," Mariam Aukerman, a Grand Rapids-based attorney the ACLU, said.
According to the attorneys, it costs about $100 per day on average to hold someone at the Kent County Correctional Facility and ICE only reimburses at $85 per day. The sheriff's department admits that ICE does not fully reimburse the county’s costs.
"We need every last cent of our county dollars to enrich our own community as we heard today and keep our community safe from actual threats present in our county," Scholten said.
But Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young says it’s not that easy.
"If we refuse to participate in any way with ICE, we could definitely facilitate the release of somebody who may be a danger to our community," LaJoye-Young said.
She said not everyone who is being held by ICE is a nonviolent offender. Already, the county will not hold someone for ICE without a warrant.
"It has to be considered and measured an approach as opposed to taking the approach of just ending the contract without thinking through the consequences first," LaJoye-Young said.
In the end, she says it is her department's job to enforce the law as it is written.
"It’s not for us to determine if the legal process that Congress set out is fair or if it’s appropriate or sufficient," LaJoye-Young said.
But attorneys for the ACLU and the Michigan Immigrants’ Rights Center said the County Commission should act. They cited legal decisions they say show that the county has discretion when it comes to detaining.
"We’re not calling on the county to harbor individuals or to stand in ICE’s way," Scholten said.
Immigration advocates asked that Kent County proclaim itself a welcoming community for immigrants and that the commission refuse to authorize funds to be used for federal immigration enforcement.
"It is up to the sheriff to end the contract, but a statement from this body would send a very powerful message," Aukerman said.
There are commissioners on board.
"We can’t end the contract today; however, I will work with you to end the contract," Commissioner David Bulkowski, D-Grand Rapids, said.
But the commission chairperson says it is not standard policy for the commission to instruct other duly-elected officials on how to do their jobs.
"The policy that they want changed is a sheriff's department policy, it's not a County Commission policy. The most we can do is to hear them out," Commissioner Jim Saalfield, R-Grand Rapids, said.
The commission plans to form a work group to study the issue and decide what, if anything, can be done
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