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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It was January of 2017 when Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza first used the word “sanctuary” to describe Providence’s immigration policies.
“Providence has always been a sanctuary for immigrants, and it will continue to be that way,” he said, standing in the lobby of the Providence Police Department flanked by his police chief and public safety commissioner.
Since then, the two-term Democrat has repeatedly said Providence won’t help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, with rounding up or arresting undocumented immigrants in Providence.
Most recently, the mayor held a news conference this past July ahead of reported nationwide immigration sweeps. While no one was reporting that Providence would be a target, he reiterated: “Providence police will not be part of these inhumane immigration actions.”
Pressed for specifics on the city’s level of cooperation with ICE, he doubled down: “No involvement, period. … We will not be cooperating in any way.”
The term “sanctuary city” is a fraught one, without a specific legal definition. The Trump administration has said cities and towns who declare themselves “sanctuaries” are breaking the law and should be punished. The president has threatened to cut their federal funding, and even floated the idea of sending immigrant detainees to sanctuary cities.
A Target 12 survey of local police departments in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts revealed a wide variety of different policies and practices when it comes to law enforcement cooperating with ICE.
Providence is unique in having a written policy barring officers from honoring administrative detainers from ICE, Target 12 found.
Administrative detainers are requests from ICE asking local police to hold a person in their custody for up to 48 hours so that ICE can retrieve them for civil immigration proceedings, which could include deportation. Unlike a criminal warrant, an administrative detainer doesn’t require a judge’s approval.
Providence’s written policy is clear: “If the warrant is an administrative detainer, the Department will neither arrest nor hold the subject based exclusively on the administrative detainer.”
The policy also says Providence police won’t help with operations to enforce civil immigration law, even if it’s just setting up traffic perimeters.
But Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said in a recent interview with Target 12, the city doesn’t actually have zero involvement with ICE.
Providence Police will arrest someone who has a criminal warrant from ICE, just like they would with any other law enforcement agency, Paré said.
“We will arrest and will turn you over to ICE,” Paré said of suspects with criminal warrants. “What we will not do is if there’s a detainer on you, which is a civil hold.”
“We’re not ICE agents,” Paré added. “We need our community to trust our Providence Police.”
A different approach in Bristol County
Less than 30 miles away from Providence, across the border in Massachusetts, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Dartmouth takes a very different approach — jailing undocumented immigrants in a dedicated facility and sending its own officers to be trained as immigration agents.
“Well, if you’re human you have to have compassion for those circumstances,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said in an interview. “But you still have to go back to the baseline issue, which is did the person knowingly come here, and knowingly violate the laws to get into the United States.”
Hodgson, a Republican who is elected to his position, goes beyond just detaining immigrants at the request of ICE. Hodgson’s office has signed two immigration-related agreements with the federal government: a memorandum of agreement for a controversial program known as 287(g), and an inter-governmental service agreement (IGSA) to house detainees.
Under 287(g), six of Hodgson’s local officers were sent to train with the feds to perform functions of immigration officers in Bristol County.
The sheriff’s office then detains immigrants under the IGSA, receiving $98 per day per detainee from ICE, according to spokesperson Jonathan Darling. Last year, that added up to $7.9 million.
Darling said the sheriff’s office used money from ICE in 2006 to build the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center, which cost $414,000.
On any given day, the sheriff’s office is holding an average of 180 detainees, according to Darling.
“Like any American citizen that violates the law, if you haven’t been caught yet you’re probably going to be nervous and you’re probably going to be afraid,” Hodgson said in an interview with Target 12. “And you should be.”
The Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office, Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office and Massachusetts Department of Corrections are also part of the 287(g) program, according to ICE. No Rhode Island departments are currently in the program.
“Participating in this program is a terrorization tactic,” argues Arely Diaz, of the local immigrant-rights group Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance (AMOR). Her organization opposes any police cooperation with ICE.
“It’s saying you can’t be trusting your local police,” Diaz said.
Most local police departments in Bristol County responded to Target 12’s survey by saying they don’t detain immigrants for ICE, and several pointed to a 2017 court decision in Massachusetts that says local police don’t have the authority to do so. Even so, immigrants arrested by those departments can ultimately be detained and handed over to ICE by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office down the road.
Police in RI sometimes help ICE
Whether or not an undocumented immigrant arrested by police in Rhode Island will be detained and handed over to ICE depends largely on which town or city they’re in, the Target 12 survey found.
Police departments across the state sent a wide range of responses about whether they cooperate with ICE, and how.
Smithfield Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur said his department “is willing to cooperate with all federal agencies in whatever ways are needed and permitted by law.”
He declined an on-camera interview for this story, but elaborated via email: “If ICE became aware of an illegal person taken into custody on our criminal charge(s) … and ICE forwards a civil detainer to us, we will give ICE full access to this person while he/she is in our police station,” St. Sauveur said.
“If we will be transporting that person to court or to the ACI, we will keep ICE fully informed of our anticipated arrival times at these places,” he continued. “If we know this at the time, we will also provide ICE with the courtroom that we anticipate bringing the illegal person to.”
Some departments said they cooperate with all law enforcement agencies, including ICE, but do not have a written policy. Some, like Scituate Police, noted they’ve never even received a request from the immigration agency.
The Rhode Island State Police does have a policy regarding immigrants, and unlike Providence Police, the state police will honor civil detainers — but only certain ones.
The agency will only detain an immigrant for ICE if there is a final deportation order against the person, and state police require two signed documents before honoring the request.
“The role of the state police is not to investigate or enforce federal civil immigration proceedings,” Lt. Col Kevin Barry said.
He pointed out that state police will not arrest someone because of their ICE detainer alone, and will only honor the request if the immigrant is already in police custody for another reason.
“I think people have a misconception that this happens every single day,” Barry said. “It doesn’t. I think they’re pretty few and far between.”
Regardless, Diaz criticized the state police and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo for detaining any immigrants in order for ICE to deport them.
“You don’t build trust by collaborating with an agency that’s actively tearing families apart,” she said.
Raimondo’s press secretary, Josh Block, said in an email: “The state’s policy is that detainers be honored only if there is a judicial order of deportation. This policy was developed by the Chafee administration in response to a federal court ruling by [U.S. District] Judge [John] McConnell that found it would be unconstitutional to do otherwise.”
A decade ago, the Rhode Island State Police was operating more like the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office when it came to immigrants. Then-Republican Gov. Don Carcieri signed a tough-on-immigration executive order in 2008 that authorized the state police to join the 287(g) program.
During the two years Rhode Island was in the program, troopers detained immigrants for ICE two or three times a week, according to Cranston Police Col. Michael Winquist, who was the state police lieutenant in charge of the 287(g) program at the time.
Winquist told Target 12 there were four members of the state police in the program, and they would detain immigrants brought in for a variety of initial charges including DUI.
“We worked very closely with the ICE office in Providence,” Winquist said. “We were coming across a lot of people who were here illegally who committed crimes.”
Chafee revoked Carcieri’s order as soon as he became governor in 2011, ending the state police partnership with ICE.
“I was disappointed,” Winquist said. “I thought the program had a value to it.”
Federal funding safe for now
In the Trump era, labeling your city a “sanctuary” for immigrants is a good way to get the attention of federal authorities.
Providence’s policy has been on the administration’s radar for years, but courts have so far blocked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from cutting funds to Providence Police.
The effort was made by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced in 2017 DOJ would only provide grant money “to cities and states that comply with federal law, allow federal immigration access to detention facilities, and provide 48 hours notice before they release an illegal alien wanted by federal authorities. ”
Under that policy, the DOJ tried to cut Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funding to the police departments in both Providence and Central Falls, prompting the two cities to sue Sessions and the DOJ.
Providence was set to receive more than $212,000 from the feds that year, and Central Falls had been awarded more than $28,000.
The two cities argued that the DOJ was trying to “coerce local governments into enforcing the federal government’s civil immigration policies by conditioning Byrne JAG funding on compliance with immigration-related conditions that have nothing to do with the program’s purpose.”
A judge agreed with the cities earlier this year, issuing a permanent injunction preventing the DOJ from withholding the funds.
In a statement, ICE spokesperson John Mohan told Target 12, “jurisdictions that have policies that explicitly prohibit cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement only put the public safety of communities, including communities with large immigrant populations, at greater risk.”
“When jurisdictions adopt policies that fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders onto the streets, it undermines, rather than strengthens public safety,” Mohan said.
But Paré said Providence isn’t interested in changing its principles.
“The threat of withholding funds … we hear them,” Paré said. “But we are focused on continuing with a good relationship with our community.”
12 ON 12: AN AMERICAN DEBATE
Hannah Dickison and Walt Buteau contributed to this report.