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Thurston County Law Enforcement and ICE

Getting pulled over by a patrol car, let alone getting arrested, is an unnerving experience—especially if you are a citizen of another country and don’t possess documents that demonstrate your legal right to be in the United States. What if this traffic stop or arrest leads to my being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE? What will my encounter with local police mean for me and my family?

The Olympia City Council declared Olympia a sanctuary city in December 2016 in part to alleviate the anxiety immigrants experience when interacting with local law enforcement. The city’s sanctuary resolution declares that employees will be instructed “to refuse the application of any request from a state or federal agency that requires the identification of a resident’s immigration status.” Strengthening Sanctuary was founded to lend substance to this declaration, and the Law Enforcement-ICE Working Group of Strengthening Sanctuary has encouraged the Olympia Police Department (OPD) to do everything possible to restrict the information it provides to ICE.

Olympia police department’s policies

Before the sanctuary city resolution was passed, the OPD had a policy against honoring ICE detention requests to keep inmates in jail past their release time so ICE could pick them up. Since the passage of the city council resolution, Olympia police have further restricted their cooperation with ICE. They have agreed to leave blank the space on federal fingerprint forms that asks about place of birth. Officers are also supposed to ignore any ICE-related message they see on their computer screens when they pull someone over, unless the message pertains to a criminal warrant signed by a judge (an administrative warrant issued by ICE does not count). The Olympia jail will no longer post inmate release dates on its website, nor provide release date information to ICE or the general public. Prisoners are notified that, if ICE officers visit the jail, they have the right to refuse to meet with ICE or to answer their questions.

So if you’re pulled over by an Olympia cop, or locked up in the Olympia jail on a misdemeanor charge, and you have no outstanding warrants that appear in state or federal databases, you may escape the clutches of ICE. But outside Olympia – or even inside Olympia if you are pulled over by an officer from another jurisdiction, like a sheriff’s deputy – you have more reason to be nervous. This is because the other law enforcement agencies operating in Thurston County – the Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol, and police departments of Lacey, Tumwater, Yelm, and Tenino – have different policies concerning their communications with ICE.

Each law enforcement group has its own policies

What’s more, if you are taken into custody by any law enforcement agency besides the OPD, there is reason to worry. Whereas individuals arrested for a misdemeanor by a member of the OPD are booked at the Olympia City Jail, all others taken into custody in the county are either incarcerated at the Thurston County Jail (if they are charged with or convicted of a felony, or have been arrested by a sheriff’s deputy) or at the Nisqually or Chehalis tribal jail. Unlike Olympia police and corrections officials, the Sheriff’s Office is committed to honoring ICE administrative warrants, filling in the spot on the fingerprint form for place of birth, and providing ICE with release dates if ICE requests that information. As for the Nisqually and Chehalis tribal jails, we don’t know what information they will share with ICE since tribal authorities have refused to meet with the Law Enforcement-ICE Working Group or to respond to written questions submitted by us. The police chief of the Chehalis tribe has asserted tribal sovereignty as the rationale for this refusal. Sending Thurston County arrestees to other sovereign nations poses a challenge for citizen oversight of Thurston County’s criminal justice system, particularly when the authorities of those nations refuse to meet or answer questions.

Local policies and practices are fundamentally shaped by national immigration laws passed by the United States Congress and rules formulated by the federal agencies charged with enforcing those laws—especially ICE, Customs and Border Protection (which includes the Border Patrol) and the Department of Justice. Local governments enjoy a fair measure of discretionary authority when it comes to how much to cooperate with ICE. But however they exercise this discretion, they cannot prevent ICE from making arrests in their jurisdictions, a sobering reality that applies as much to sanctuary cities like Olympia, as it does anywhere else. There are no ICE-free zones.

Strengthening Sanctuary’s work

One major goal of Strengthening Sanctuary’s Law Enforcement-ICE Working Group has been to encourage local authorities to make the most of the flexibility they have with respect to federal immigration enforcement to bolster legal and administrative protections for immigrants. Over the past 20 months, we have been engaged in often sustained dialogue with local authorities, including the county sheriff, the chief prosecutor of Thurston County, a captain with the State Patrol, city administrators in Olympia and Tumwater, and police chiefs in Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and Yelm. Our interactions have included in-person interviews, phone calls, emails and meetings. In all cases, we have been seeking to understand the details of how law enforcement is supposed to act in particular situations. We have then encouraged changes in policies and practices aimed at minimizing local cooperation with ICE. We believe we have had some success in certain jurisdictions.

Certain jurisdictions, but not all. Since the OPD has gone the furthest in limiting its cooperation with ICE and articulating in writing what those limits are, we’d like to see other county law enforcement agencies follow Olympia’s lead. This would allow immigrants throughout the county to have more confidence in their dealings with law enforcement officers no matter where those dealings take place. Unfortunately, the sheriff has made it clear that he does not intend to enact the policies of the OPD, and the relationship between tribal corrections officials and ICE is opaque. We can remain alert to what officers in different jurisdictions are supposed to do and document violations of authorized practices. And we can seek to persuade regional political authorities to take their cue from Olympia’s example. But the political, electoral, jurisdictional and contractual obstacles we’ve encountered show the difficulties of extending sanctuary protections throughout the county, and these difficulties diminish the strength of Olympia’s sanctuary resolution.

Still, we believe the work of documenting policies is valuable in and of itself. We also encourage law enforcement agencies to spell out those policies in writing – even if they don’t go as far as we think they should. Otherwise, officers may be unaware a particular policy exists, they may be confused about the policy, or they may think they won’t be punished for violating it. Such possibilities are not merely hypothetical. In November 2017, the apparently unwitting violation of an unwritten policy directly led to an ICE arrest outside the Thurston County Jail. Lack of accountability stemming from unwritten policies feeds into and compounds the fear and distrust of law enforcement that pervades immigrant communities, an outcome that runs directly counter to the stated goal of all law enforcement representatives we interviewed to minimize such fear.

Strengthening Sanctuary shares this goal. One of our main objectives is to work “for the safety and welfare of immigrant members of our communities, especially those who are undocumented.” This means that people should not be afraid that being stopped by local law enforcement could result in information-sharing with ICE that puts them at risk of detention and deportation. It also means having the right to call local law enforcement for help without fear that ICE will become involved. The overlap between law enforcement’s professed goal and Strengthening Sanctuary’s mission will guide our work as we continue to focus on the details of policing in relation to ICE in the coming months.

For a copy of the Law Enforcement-ICE Working Group report in English, send an email to

Alice Dinerman has facilitated writing workshops with distressed youth.  She co-edited Force Fields with Terrance Caldwell, an anthology of poetry and prose by teens at Thurston County Juvenile Detention.  She is an active member of Strengthening Sanctuary’s Law Enforcement and ICE Working group. 

Peter Kardas has been active with Strengthening Sanctuary’s Law Enforcement and ICE Working Group since January 2017.  His last paying job was Director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the Evergreen State College from 2000 to 2010.


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