Jail stops housing immigration detainees

forwarded by Jay Johnson-Castro

Thursday, Dec 21, 2006
Ramsey County sheriff acts as policy study launched


Pioneer Press (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN)

The door to the Ramsey County jail is shut for suspected illegal immigrants picked up by federal immigration authorities.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher said Tuesday he would no longer accept “immigration boarders” brought to the St. Paul jail by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Fletcher announced the administrative change the day Ramsey County commissioners launched a policy study on housing detainees.

“I think you’re going in the right direction,” Fletcher told the commissioners.

Several commissioners expressed concern about the appropriateness of holding suspected illegal immigrants in the county jail.

The change of course was prompted by Commissioner Rafael Ortega, of St. Paul , who said he wanted to see the county get out of the business of holding immigration detainees. The 494-bed jail averages 60 such detainees per day and received $2 million from the federal government for doing so last year.

Ortega and others noted that one immigration detainee has been held for more than 400 days in a jail where the average stay is only four days.

“This isn’t going to get any better,” he said of the extended stays in the jail. “It’s only going to get worse. We at least need to have a conscious look at our policies.”

He also said that refusing to accommodate immigration detainees is “a simple issue of social justice.”

“These people are here because we need them,” Ortega said. “They’re part of our economy.”

Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, of White Bear Lake , agreed and added that responsibility for the appropriate custody of immigration detainees must ultimately fall to federal officials.

“I agree with the philosophical position here,” she said. “We need to send a message some way that they need to do their job.”

The County Board as a whole, though, reacted with caution on the proposal. Some said they hadn’t been aware of Ortega’s plans before Tuesday.

Commissioner Tony Bennett, of Shoreview , said other considerations factor in the decision, noting the detainees won’t be freed just because they are not held in St. Paul . They will be sent elsewhere, said Bennett, a former U.S. marshal.

Commissioner Jim McDonough, of St. Paul , said routing people elsewhere might make matters worse for detainees.

“Are we actually doing more harm to people who are already in a tough situation … separating them further from their families?” McDonough said.

He also advised caution on taking the initiative in matters involving the jail.

“At what point are we going to say we have a problem with this law, and we’re not going to accept people arrested for it,” McDonough said. He noted that the county surely will jail some protesters during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul — a largely Democratic city in a largely Democratic county.

The matter hasn’t yet become an issue in other local facilities that might house detainees for immigration authorities, though few are in the same position as Ramsey County .

• Washington and Dakota county jail authorities say their facilities are already full of local inmates and can’t accommodate any other jurisdictions.

• Sherburne County has a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was holding 168 of the agency’s detainees Tuesday, according to Sheriff Bob Anderson.

• Carver County doesn’t have a formal contract with immigration authorities, but it has agreed to hold detainees on an as-available basis, according to Sheriff Bud Olson.

• Anoka County jail Capt. Dave Pacholl said his facility didn’t take immigration detainees for practical reasons, citing the language and translation demands immigrants put on jail staff.

Fletcher told Ramsey County commissioners that detainees in his jail come from dozens of countries and speak 12 languages that require more attention from staff. He has also cited the safety risk of housing nonviolent immigration offenders on a long-term basis with suspected “murderers, serious weapons offenders and rapists.”

Although illegal immigration is a hotly debated issue, public presence at Tuesday’s discussion was small. Deborah Rosenstein, a program coordinator with the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota and a St. Paul resident, later expressed her support for the board’s consideration.

“To me, this is a humanitarian issue,” she said. “It is absolutely horrible what happened in the Worthington raids (on a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant). We have a crisis here, and I am glad to be a part of a community that’s addressing it.”

Commissioners, though, only directed county administrators to study the potential impact of turning away detainees in the custody of immigration authorities.

Fletcher thought it could be as much as $800,000 next year. Commissioners are expecting initial results sometime next month.

Nancy Yang and Frederick Melo contributed to this report. Tim Nelson can be reached at or 651-292-1159.

“To me, this is a humanitarian issue. It is absolutely horrible what happened in the Worthington raids (on a Swift & Co. meatpacking plant). We have a crisis here, and I am glad to be a part of a community that’s addressing it.”

Deborah Rosenstein, program coordinator with the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota …

By mopress

Writer, Editor, Educator, Lifelong Student

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