Denver this week became the national target of the Trump administration’s escalated crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement subpoenaed information on four foreign nationals wanted for deportation.
ICE usually sends the administrative subpoenas to employers or landlords as they track down immigrants who are in the country illegally. The agency confirmed to The Associated Press, which first reported the Denver subpoenas, that it was the first time they had been directed to a law enforcement agency. ICE indicated that it could expand the unusual practice to other cities.
“Since we have no cooperation at the Denver justice center, we are modifying our tactics to produce information,” said Henry Lucero, deputy executive associate director for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations.
Theresa Marchetta, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Hancock, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, told The Denver Post on Wednesday: “I find it very ironic that an administration that does not respect congressional subpoenas (in Trump’s impeachment investigation) is calling out the city of Denver for not responding to what amounts to a request. This is not a legal document. It’s not signed by a judge.”
If city officials don’t respond, ICE, the homeland security agency responsible for arresting and deporting people, could take the subpoena to a federal judge, who can order compliance and find the city in contempt if it doesn’t comply.
Until then, city officials sounded unlikely to provide the information sought.
“There is no indication (the subpoenas) are related to a criminal investigation,” said Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office. “Denver does not comply with subpoenas unless they are court-ordered or unless they are primarily related to a criminal investigation. Our immigration ordinance fully complies with federal law.”
Curbing immigration, both legal and illegal, has been a top priority for Trump. Since he took office, his administration has battled sanctuary cities, localities that provide added protection to immigrants and refuse to cooperate with federal officials. In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent letters to 29 cities, metro areas, counties or states considered to have adopted “sanctuary policies,” saying those policies may violate federal law and threatening to withhold law enforcement grants.
Denver and the others eventually received the funds after courts chipped away at the threat.
ICE sent the new subpoenas to Denver on Monday. In three of the cases, officials were given 14 days to respond with information, and in one case, three days.
The four men, three Mexican nationals and one Honduran, had all been arrested and jailed. One man from Mexico was arrested for sexual assault, another for vehicular homicide, and a third for child abuse and strangulation assault. The Honduran man was arrested on domestic violence charges. All previously had been removed from the country.
Three of the four men have been released and one remains in custody.
ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said in an email Wednesday that the subpoenas to the Downtown Detention Center sought information that could aid in finding the inmates.
“We are seeking base information to fulfill our congressional mandate to enforce immigration law: where an alien is known to work, or apartment complexes where an alien might live, to find out more information about a targeted alien,” she said, declining to provide copies of the subpoenas.
Immigration officials earlier had sent requests to the Denver jail to alert them about when the suspects would be released, but the city does not comply with such requests with as much advance notice as ICE wants, typically 48 hours. Some other cities, including New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, refuse to help federal immigration authorities at all.
Marchetta said Wednesday that the Denver jail did notify ICE before the three inmate releases, but she did not have information about how soon beforehand. Typically Denver notifies ICE within just a few hours of release, and city officials say it’s rare to know the timing farther in advance.
Hancock signed the city’s stepped-up sanctuary policies in 2018.
The new ordinance and other policies make clear that city employees won’t ask about or share a person’s legal status. The changes included barring ICE agents from access to secure areas of city jails for interviews with inmates, unless they obtain judicial warrants.
A former Denver police chief declared at the time, “We do not do the work of ICE.” The federal agency’s Denver field office, however, called the city’s stance “a dangerous policy that deliberately obstructs our country’s lawful immigration system, protects serious criminal alien offenders and undermines public safety.”
Enforcement and removal officers with ICE rely on help from local law enforcement to find suspects. Over the budget year that ended Sept. 30, officers arrested about 143,000 people, about 13,000 less than last year, and deported more than 267,000. More than 92,000 of the arrests were of people with criminal convictions, officials said, including for homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault and assault.
But immigrant advocates and lawmakers say ICE is deporting people who have been in the U.S. for decades, who have families and lives and make contributions to American cities and who should not be their focus.
Sanctuary cities say they are creating havens for those people so they can feel safe and can report crime without fear of deportation.
ICE’s Lucero said the agency doesn’t want to get into the business of subpoenaing fellow law enforcement agencies — he called it a last resort.
But because of changes in how municipalities work with ICE, it could be necessary, he said. And ICE officials believe they have the legal right to do it under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
“This is a drastic change,” he said of the subpoenas. “And one ICE is forced to do, and puts other agencies on notice that we don’t want this to happen. We want to protect the public.”
ICE officials pointed to a New York City case where a 21-year-old Guyanese national was arrested and accused of raping and murdering a 92-year-old woman in Queens on Jan. 10. According to ICE, the suspect had beaten up his father during a brawl in November that resulted in an arrest. Federal officials sent a request to hand him over for deportation. New York City police say they didn’t get a request.
But even if they did, under the terms of New York’s local laws, they would not have turned over the 21-year-old.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.