Hogan administration needs to be clear about its policy for cooperating with ICE

Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration is playing some semantic games in its responses to questions about whether it honors Trump administration requests to hold suspected illegal immigrants in the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center beyond the time they would ordinarily be released. The effort to cloud the issue is apparently so successful that not even the Trump administration seems to know whether state officials are assisting or obstructing in its damaging immigration crackdown. That may be deft politics for a Republican governor who has generally managed to avoid being tied with an unpopular president from his party while still not directly confronting pro-Trump voters in his political base, but it’s bad for public safety. Immigrants, law enforcement and corrections officials need to know what Maryland’s policies are.

The Sun’s John Fritze did yeoman’s work in trying to figure out what happens when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials try to get the cooperation of the state officials who run Baltimore’s jail. The Hogan administration insisted that it had received no detainer requests dating to his inauguration in 2015, and it responded to a Public Information Act request for such forms that it had no applicable records. But a federal Freedom of Information Act request told a different story, turning up dozens of such forms, including some that requested a 48-hour hold in all caps, just in case the state missed the point. The state’s explanation is that because it notified ICE before the individuals in question were due to be released, and ICE almost always picked them up on their way out of jail, the forms requesting extra detention of those immigrants somehow didn’t count. It’s a neat trick; those upset about Trump administration immigration policies can feel reassured that Baltimore remains on the Department of Justice’s list of sanctuary cities, yet the Hogan administration can simultaneously assert that it’s complying fully with the federal government.

But this isn’t just a question of picking sides in the partisan struggle over immigration policy. How the state handles these requests and how transparent it is about its policy have real world effects.

The vast majority of undocumented immigrants in this country are here to earn a better life for themselves and their families, and they intend no harm. But some are in fact involved in gangs, the drug trade and other criminal activity, and pretty much everyone across the political spectrum agrees that those dangerous individuals should be deported. The stated policy of the Obama administration was that federal officials should focus their limited resources on those who pose a real threat, rather than casting a wide net in an attempt to deport illegal immigrants indiscriminately. That wasn’t always the case, at least not at first. During the O’Malley and Obama administrations, Mr. Fritze showed that contrary to federal officials’ insistence that they were only seeking local help in detaining serious criminals, most requests Maryland received were for people suspected of only minor offenses. But eventually, federal policies changed and immigration officials in fact became more selective — at least until Mr. Trump took office.

How the Hogan administration is actually handling the Trump administration’s requests isn’t inherently a problem. We recognize that officials are trying to strike a balance in avoiding unconstitutional requests to hold detainees longer than normal without a warrant while also allowing for immigration officials to pick up those who might legitimately pose a danger. And we understand that the Trump Department of Justice’s hysteria over “sanctuary cities” is making that harder. But the Hogan administration’s lack of transparency and its inconsistent explanations for what it’s doing and why have the potential to cause problems.

Enforcing immigration law is the federal government’s responsibility, and it cannot legally coerce state and local governments into performing that role. When they do so voluntarily, they harm public safety within immigrant communities and beyond. If local police are viewed as deportation agents, immigrants — whether documented or not — become less likely to cooperate with authorities. They do not report crimes as readily, and they do not act as witnesses. The situation in regard to Baltimore’s central booking is complicated because it is a local institution run by the state government — a distinction that has appeared to confuse the Trump administration as well — so it is important for city and state officials to speak with one voice about their views and policies on the issue. The fact that the Hogan administration does not actually have a written policy and has avoided discussing the situation makes it impossible for that to happen — while simultaneously increasing the risk that someone who does in fact pose a legitimate danger could be released by mistake. Talking openly about this issue may be politically uncomfortable for Governor Hogan. The alternative is worse.

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