Hamilton County jail will continue to work with federal immigration agents, sheriff says

CINCINNATI -- The Hamilton County sheriff will continue to detain undocumented inmates at the request of federal immigration authorities, despite Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s claim Monday the city is a “sanctuary city.”

A spokesman with the sheriff’s office confirmed no policies have changed at the Hamilton County Justice Center as of Monday afternoon.

“People are asking me whether I’m taking the conservative or liberal side, and I tell them I’m taking the side of the law,” Sheriff Jim Neil said in a statement to WCPO. “I was elected sheriff, and as sheriffs we don’t write the laws like legislators, we enforce the laws, whether federal, state or local.”

People arrested by Cincinnati police officers for serious crimes are typically processed through the Hamilton County jail.

If deputies are unable to identify a person in custody, they can contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement for help. ICE may then request the county jail detain the person to await immigration hearings, said Michael Robison, the media director for the sheriff’s office.

That policy will stay the same, Robison confirmed to WCPO Monday afternoon, even as city and county leaders vowed at a packed news conference to make the region more welcoming for immigrants -- including at the county jail.

“I’ve already spoken to Sheriff Neil about what practices he will undertake with respect to enforcement of the laws and making certain that we do not use our jails or our police powers in ways that give practice to a declaration that we all know is un-American and illegal,” Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune said during the Monday afternoon news conference at City Hall.

Neil, who is a Democrat, was not present at the event, where more than 60 religious and nonprofit leaders, immigration proponents and Democratic lawmakers packed a room.

The Hamilton County Commission does not control what policies the sheriff implements or how the office spends its money.

There is no legal definition of a "sanctuary city," and the term has been used widely and loosely across the nation. But often, a sanctuary city is defined as an area that does not honor ICE detainer requests. 

For example, in San Francisco, which is often called a "sanctuary city," deputies sometimes refuse ICE detainer requests. Other cities, such as Dayton, are sometimes labeled as "sanctuary cities" simply because of welcoming immigration resources or policies.

Calling Cincinnati a "sanctuary city" is mostly symbolic, said Neil Fleischer, a Cincinnati immigration attorney who represents hundreds of clients every year for the Fleischer Law Firm.

“It’s a place where immigrants can feel secure,” Fleischer said. “It just means that local officials will not assist the federal officials in doing their job.”

But that label can carry weight, he said. Fleischer has been advising clients to move out of Butler County, for example, where the sheriff frequently talks of cracking down on “illegal aliens.”

Sean Comer, director of government relations at Xavier University, agreed Cranley’s announcement could change the city’s image.

“The biggest change is that he (Cranley) is saying ‘sanctuary city,’ and in the past he hasn’t said it … the policies aren’t changing,” Comer said.

During Monday’s news conference, Cranley maintained Cincinnati has been a "sanctuary city" for a number of years, although he himself has changed positions on immigration issues.

In the wake of terrorist attacks on Paris in 2015, Cranley called for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Cincinnati until better background checks were in place.

Reporters pressed Cranley for his definition of a "sanctuary city" and how his stance on the issue has changed, just months ahead of the May primary for mayor.

“First of all, as I mentioned, we have been for a long time. Ever since we declared ourselves to be the most immigrant-friendly city in America -- which we’re working toward that still -- we put the whole world on notice that we’ll live up to the Statue of Liberty ideals,” Cranley said.

Cranley said the Cincinnati Police Department issued a policy in March 2015 that they were not in the business of enforcing immigration law.

Prompted to the podium, Chief Eliot Isaac said, “We value our immigrant population. The Cincinnati Police Department is in the business of making everyone safe. We will not be enforcing immigration law."

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