Immigrants may feel safer under a new county code, but it may surpass local government power.
On Tuesday, Aug. 15, San Juan County Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to prevent the collection of immigration statuses. Without this information, county staff cannot share it with federal agencies to deport undocumented immigrants.
“This may or may not be a perfect initiative, typically that’s what the courts are for to ultimately resolve,” said Councilman Bill Watson. “What’s really important is that our residents feel they have equal protection.”
If the ordinance had not been adopted by council, an initiative proposing it would have been on the general election ballot this fall.
The public hearing brought roughly 20 residents who spoke in support of adopting the ordinance that day and two against.
The main unfavorable opinion at the meeting came from San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord. He said he opposed the ordinance because some sections violate local, state and federal laws and prohibit everyday county employees’ work. These violations may lead to lawsuits against the county, he added.
Eleanor Hoague of Orcas, who wrote the initiative, is a retired lawyer with 40 years of immigration advocacy experience. While she was not permitted by the council to give a presentation the way Gaylord did at the meeting, she later told the Journal she used an immigration guidance on immigration by the Washington Attorney General to write the initiative.
According to a Washington Attorney General press release, the guidance was created to “help local government entities…respond to federal requests for assistance with immigration enforcement.”
One section Gaylord objected to prevents county staff from releasing information to any local, state or federal government agency unless it includes a judicial order. This, he said, breaches Title 8 of the U.S. Code, which states releasing immigration statuses to government agencies cannot be restricted.
The guidance, however, states Title 8 does not require agencies to collect information about citizenship.
Gaylord said assisting other law enforcement agencies maintains safe communities, while Hoague said it leads to deportation.
“It would break my heart if a father, a mother was accused of child abandonment, and prior to their being convicted, they were turned over to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and deported, breaking up a family,” she said.
Another section Gaylord objected to prevents county staff from collecting, not only information on national origin and immigration status, but race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, even if given voluntarily.
This, said Gaylord, violates a state law that requires superintendents of correctional facilities to inquire about the nationality and immigration status of inmates.
Hoague said there is no conflict with state law because the information would be collected after the citizen was convicted of a crime, while the initiative is preventing collecting information before a judicial ruling.
That section also prevents many county departments from collecting data, said Gaylord, including the sheriff’s office’s collection of suspect, victim and witness information, which could stall crime investigations or incriminate incorrect suspects.
Councilman Rick Hughes asked if this limitation on data collection would prevent the completion of county job applications or employee health benefits forms. Gaylord said yes, as there are no exemptions in that section. Hoague said the heading of this initiative section specifies that it only applies to immigration, not personnel or other law enforcement documents.
Rhea Miller of Lopez, who served 10 years on the San Juan County Council, said making council decisions isn’t always easy, especially with the issues Gaylord mentioned, but the councilmen have the community’s support.
“You know in your hearts this is the right thing to do,” she said.
Berto Gandara, the priest at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish on Orcas Island, said he knows immigrants who are apprehensive of law enforcement out of fear of being deported. The ordinance could instill trust and passing it would prevent a hostile election season, he said.
County staff already comply with some sections of the initiative, said Gaylord, though processes are not written in county code. These processes include a section of the ordinance that prevents the interrogation or arrest of citizens based on immigration status or race.
Gaylord previously told the Journal that San Juan County deputies do not comply with ICE requests to hold undocumented immigrants for deportation if it’s past their scheduled release dates unless warrants are issued. Under the current federal administration, ICE officers request law enforcement agencies to detain citizens without warrants, said Gaylord, which, he added, is unconstitutional.
“We do many things to help immigrants, whether they are living here in the community safely, victims of crimes, or even charged with offenses,” said Gaylord to the council about this policy. “We treat them in a fair way, that’s consistent with others.”
Hughes had some issues with the initiative, though he ultimately supported it. He questioned the section that states county employees and elected officials must receive voter approval before entering into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its divisions of ICE and Customs and Border Protection.
This, said Gaylord, contradicts the county charter, which gives county council the authority to make those decisions. Hoague said ordinances, like this one, can limit the charter.
One section of the initiative also bans Homeland Security representatives from questioning citizens in San Juan County’s jail, as well as overflow facilities, like in Island County, where inmates are often transferred due to the lack of local space.
During the discussion, Hughes said he did not want to send inmates to more expensive facilities to meet the ordinance’s standards. Hoague said requesting these standards is not unreasonable.
Gaylord mentioned federal funding was also at risk. He explained that grants, which partly fund county staff’s prosecutions and investigations into drug crimes, would likely be revoked if the ordinance passed, as he was already warned of the risk.
Councilman Jamie Stephens noted that the county’s federal funding would likely be stripped even if the ordinance wasn’t adopted. San Juan County has already been listed on ICE sanctuary jurisdictions reports, based on staff’s immigration policies prior to the ordinance adoption. The lists were created to find uncompliant municipalities to ban federal funding, said Stephens.
A sanctuary jurisdiction does not cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. The sanctuary jurisdiction reports were created after President Donald Trump signed an executive order, last winter, to ban federal funding from these areas.
The majority of the executive order was blocked by the courts last spring, said Hoague. She expects to see an additional ruling about the unconstitutionality of the grant limitations Gaylord mentioned, as well.
Gaylord said municipalities typically don’t make formal declarations as sanctuary jurisdictions, but the county’s policies before and after the initiative adoption define the county as one to the current federal administration.
According to San Juan County code, the ordinance cannot be changed for two years, unless a different, citizen-created initiative amended or repealed it. This could not be done until next year’s general election.
The council adopted the ordinance, at the end of the roughly two-hour hearing, followed by a room full of applause.
“I truly believe we’re not trying to ruin the rule of law, we’re just trying to get our local law enforcement to do their job and the federal law enforcement do their job,” said Stephens.
To view the meeting and the initiative, visit www.sanjuanco.com/1077/County-Council and select the Aug. 15 meeting.
Read the Journal’s reporter’s notebook about the issue here.