Nativist messages emerge in anti-immigrant movement’s response to ICE detainer rollbacks

Lauren Taylor • Jun 04, 2014

In April and May, more than 50 county sheriffs, largely in the Western U.S., announced they would no longer comply with immigration detainer requests from Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). They joined the cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia and Denver in ending – or at least pausing – the practice.

“This movement is a big deal, because local jails have become the frontline for immigration enforcement during the Obama Administration,” Spencer Amdur of the Atlantic wrote last month.

Predictably, national anti-immigrant organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform have responded with dismay, saving their harshest words for the American Civil Liberties Union and an Oregon judge whose ruling set off the latest cascade. While their messaging is at times contradictory, some key themes have emerged.


Immigration detainers, also known as ICE holds, are a key piece of the current deportation machine. Federal immigration agents make thousands of detainer requests each day, asking local jails and prisons to hold individuals past the time they would otherwise be released so that immigration authorities may take them into custody.

Recent statements by ICE officials, and an appellate court ruling, clarified ICE holds are requests, not mandates. On April 11, in the case of Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County, Oregon Judge Janice Stewart ruled that the county sheriff’s office violated the Fourth Amendment rights of an immigrant whose incarceration was prolonged due to such a hold.

FAIR zeroes in on “threatening” ACLU letters

After the Oregon court ruling on detainers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent letters to county judges and sheriffs in several states, notifying them of the Oregon court ruling and the risks and liabilities of continuing to honor ICE holds. The letter explained the impact of the Miranda-Olivares ruling:

“The decision makes clear that local law enforcement agencies that detain individuals on the sole authority of an ICE detainer violate the Fourth Amendment, unless there has been an independent judicial finding of probable cause to justify the detention.”

The mailing included a copy of the court decision as well as a letter from the director of ICE, written in February, publicly clarifying that detainers are not mandatory, rather, they are requests.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the flagship organization of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement, spun the ACLU’s actions as “threatening locals.” FAIR’s May 21 legislative newsletter elaborated, calling the letter to California sheriffs “a thinly veiled threat to sue if they continue to cooperate in immigration enforcement efforts.”

Embattled Sheriffs and Irrelevant Judges?

The FAIR newsletter excerpt also argued that the ACLU overstated the significance and scope of the Oregon court ruling and called the court ruling “already irrelevant.” The reasoning? FAIR argues that recent changes in the immigrant detainer request form will meet the standard of probable cause set forth by Judge Stewart.

While FAIR chose to minimize the significance of the Miranda-Olivares ruling, Jessica Vaughan of the anti-immigrant think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) took the opposite approach, saying the impact would be devastating, and that the ruling meant “local law enforcement agencies must not comply with ICE detainers.”

Vaughan shared FAIR’s frame of embattled sheriffs, and painted law enforcement officers who chose to honor ICE holds as brave individuals embattled by civil rights groups and abandoned by the government: “Local partners that do comply have had to fend for themselves in dealing with any lawsuits on behalf of individuals they hold for ICE who turned out not to be deportable.”

Future Crime Victims Upheld

Vaughan and CIS more broadly stuck to a traditional messaging frame about victims of released undocumented immigrants. In this case, these victims are hypothetical, future casualties of detainer rollbacks or other legislative efforts to limit local law enforcement collaboration with immigration authorities. Vaughan called the Massachusetts TRUST Act “a tragedy waiting to happen,” in a May 26 Boston Herald article. She added: “There is no logical reason to allow illegal aliens who are also criminals to walk out of jailhouse doors to continue preying on our communities.”

In March, Dan Cadman of CIS similarly predicted violence as a result of Trust Act legislation: “These statutes will ensure that dozens, perhaps hundreds, more citizens and lawful residents are victimized by illegal alien criminals who are permitted to escape the immigration penalties for their depraved indifference to the law.”

Vaughan urged citizen groups opposed to the Miranda-Olivares ruling to work with victims of crimes committed by immigrants as part of a grassroots strategy to push back against limits on immigration detainers.

In the world of anti-immigrant messaging, the evil actors are clear: over-reaching (or irrelevant) judges and dangerous, predatory immigrants. Sheriffs are painted as besieged heroes, and everyday citizens as hapless current or future victims – with possible redemption as citizen activists.

Lauren Taylor is a Field Organizer at the Center for New Community.

Image source: Thomas Hawk 

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