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Lebanon disputes 'sanctuary county' claim

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Dec 22, 2016 8:26 AM
Lebanon-County-Prison.jpg

The Lebanon County Correctional Facility does not hold people solely on immigration detainers - although Lebanon County otherwise fully cooperates with immigration authorities. (Photo: File photo)

The county was included in a recent list by the Center for Immigration Studies

(Lebanon) -- A recent report calling Lebanon County a "sanctuary county" for undocumented workers is "erroneous," according to Lebanon County Administrator Jamie Wolgemuth.

The term "sanctuary city" has no legal definition but commonly refers to cities like Seattle and San Francisco that have explicit policies of refusing to fully cooperate and communicate with federal immigration officials. President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to "sanctuary cities."

The Center for Immigration Studies - which describes its views as "low-immigration, pro-immigrant" - recently released a list of sanctuary locations. Seventeen Pennsylvania counties made the list, including Lebanon.

Lebanon County's status was picked up by WHP CBS 21 in a report last week, prompting questions to city and county officials about Lebanon's policy.

The listing of Lebanon as a "sanctuary county" seems to center around a prison policy the county adopted in 2008.

That policy reads in part: "the Lebanon County Correctional Facility will no longer accept individuals for incarceration, being detained via Immigration Detainer absent local criminal charges. An immigration detainer alone will not be justification for incarceration at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility."

Wolgemuth said the policy stems from legal, rather than ideological, concerns.

In 2008, for example, Lehigh County held a suspect on a federal immigration detainer in accordance with county policy, according to county officials as reported by WFMZ-TV. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency determined that it had made a mistake and the suspect was actually born in the United States - and Lehigh County became entangled in a multi-year lawsuit involving hundreds of thousands of dollars because of their role in detaining the man. As a result of the case, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that ICE detainers are requests rather than commands from the federal government, leaving local jurisdictions with some liability.

"I do think it was an issue earlier, but the Lehigh case kind of solidified everyone's fear," Wolgemuth said.

Lebanon County will hold someone on an immigration detainer if they have also been charged with a crime in Lebanon County, he said.

"If they are detained at LCCF due to being charged for a local crime, even if they make bail or otherwise eligible for release, we do not release them to the street," he said in an email. "Instead, we contact Federal ICE Detention facilities either in York, Pa. or Newark, N.J. to request a proper detainer and (have the person) be picked up by them and transported to their facility."

Wolgemuth said Warden Robert Karnes cannot recall the last time an ICE official actually asked for someone to be held on only an immigration detainer at Lebanon County Correctional Facility - likely because nearby York County Prison is a designated ICE detention facility.

There are 16 other Pennsylvania counties, including Perry County, with similar policies to Lebanon's, according to a 2015 Temple University study.

The term 'sanctuary city' can be used to describe any local limit on immigration enforcement, according to a recent Seattle Times article. However, it is often used to specifically reference cities that don't cooperate or communicate with federal authorities.

"In my opinion, the designation of Lebanon County as a Sanctuary County is erroneous," Wolgemuth wrote.

In Seattle, for example, law enforcement is generally prohibited from inquiring into a person's immigration status. No similar policy exists in Lebanon County.

In response to calls from Trump to cut off federal funding, several local leaders - including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney - have said their cities will remain "sanctuary cities."

Wolgemuth said Lebanon County would take a different approach. If the Trump administration were to implement a plan under which Lebanon County's policy jeopardized receipt of federal funding, the county would likely look to change its policy, he said.

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