9 things everyone should know about Providence’s position on illegal immigration

WPRI/Dan McGowan
WPRI/Dan McGowan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With Mayor Jorge Elorza declaring he won’t change Providence’s policies around undocumented immigrants for incoming President Donald Trump, it’s important to know the ins and out of the city’s current guidelines.

So how does Providence currently handle undocumented immigrants and what does it mean for the city’s relationship with the Trump administration?

Here’s an overview.

Providence is not considered a sanctuary city.
The federal government does not maintain a formal list of sanctuary cities, which are loosely defined as communities that refuse to comply with some or all parts of federal immigration laws. (This 2009 Congressional Research Service report explains it well.) The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank based in Washington, is considered the best non-government source for a list of sanctuary cities, and it doesn’t include Providence as one of roughly 300 jurisdictions it believes actively obstruct immigration enforcement. The center recently added the R.I. Department of Corrections to its list because the agency doesn’t honor detainers issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without a warrant. Some communities around the country, like San Francisco, have passed resolutions or ordinances declaring themselves sanctuary cities. That’s not the case in Providence. In 2007, former Councilman Miguel Luna proposed a package of sanctuary city ordinances that would have given undocumented residents ID cards, prohibited city employees from profiling undocumented people, and blocked police from inquiring about a person’s immigration status without a court order. None of the proposals ever came to a vote. The city’s three most recent mayors – Democrats David Cicilline, Angel Taveras and Elorza – have all publicly stated they don’t consider Providence a sanctuary city.

But Providence is often labeled a sanctuary city.
There is a difference. It’s like you calling Caserta the best pizza in the world. The statement may very well be true, but no one has formally declared that it’s better than all other pizza joints. On the immigration front, there is evidence to suggest Providence is more lenient than other communities when it comes it enforcement even though those sanctuary city ordinances never saw the light of day. For example, Cicilline, Taveras and Elorza all support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Similarly, the two former mayors and the current one all say they don’t support detaining undocumented immigrants if they haven’t committed a separate crime. In 2008, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called Providence a sanctuary city during an interview with then-Gov. Don Carcieri following an incident where a Guatemalan immigrant named Marco Riz raped a woman in Roger Williams Park. Riz was released from local custody twice the year before the incident, according to a Providence Journal article. Cicilline then penned an op-ed blaming ICE for failing to act. For what it’s worth, a list kept by the Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC does identify Providence as a sanctuary city, but the stated reason is only that Mayor Taveras tried to opt out of an ICE program in 2011.

If you’re arrested in Providence and you’re undocumented, there’s a good chance ICE will know.
Fingerprints make this possible. Every person arrested in the city has their fingerprints taken and entered into a computer system that ICE monitors. All of this is automatic. Providence police do not pick up the phone and inform ICE that a person is undocumented, according to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. It’s all done through the database. So if deportation officers want to nab an undocumented immigrant, they can show up at a suspect’s arraignment and take him or her into custody. But if a suspect makes bail or is released on personal recognizance, Providence will not detain them simply because they are in the country illegally. Typically, Pare said, ICE officers will ask the city for the suspect’s last-known address days after the arrest or arraignment.

Undocumented immigrants with criminal warrants are detained.
Although city policy prohibits police from arresting a person based solely on their immigration status, Providence will “act and arrest on all federal criminal warrants,” according to Pare. In other words, the city isn’t working with ICE to detain low-priority immigration violators. But if a suspect has caught the attention of ICE for more serious crimes, Providence will work with deportation officers.

Providence does not alert ICE to civil infractions.
If there is a real disagreement between Providence and immigration officials, this is probably the issue. When an undocumented immigrant in Providence is cited for a minor infraction like driving without a license, the city does not force them to be fingerprinted. The means ICE has little chance of finding out that an undocumented person has been accused of the crime. All other arrests do result in fingerprints, which at least gives ICE the chance to step in.

ICE and Providence generally agree on immigration priorities.
This is an important thing to keep in mind. While Mayor Elorza talks about standing up to President-elect Trump and critics accuse the city of allowing undocumented immigrants to run rampant, the truth is much closer to the middle. Elorza and his predecessors have always advocated for tough enforcement on suspected criminals and ICE is on the same page. In fact, ICE’s most well-known policy is known as the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP. In 2014, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson wrote a memo to ICE employees making it clear that threats to “national security, public safety and border security” should be their top priority. After that, suspects committing misdemeanors or those who have entered or re-entered the country recently should be targets. Johnson said the lowest priority for the agency should be other immigration violations that don’t fall into the other two categories. That memo didn’t direct deportation officers to steer clear of low-priority violators, but stated that ICE’s resources should be focused on more serious criminals. Johnson called this “prosecutorial discretion.”

Providence has worked closely with ICE in the past.
In 2012, Providence police worked with ICE and other state and federal law enforcement agencies to make a series of arrests of several members or associates of Mara Salvatrucha, a violent international street gang commonly known as MS-13. The individuals were charged with a host of crimes, including gun possession, intent to sell drugs and arson. Shawn Neudauer, a spokesperson for ICE, said the agency has made “significant strides in building partnerships with local law enforcement and community leaders through PEP to ensure a common-sense approach that focuses enforcement resources on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security while also taking into account important community policing needs.”

We have no idea what President-elect Trump will do once he takes office.
That brings us to the incoming president. On the campaign trail, he threatened to block federal funds to sanctuary cities, but he used a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday to make it clear his goal is to focus on the two or three million undocumented immigrants accused of committing non-immigration crimes in the country. Because he has not published a policy proposal on the issue, it’s only possible to speculate on how he’ll move toward deporting millions of people. One obvious way would be to be staff up at ICE. Neudauer said there are about 6,000 officers at ICE, which makes it nearly impossible for them to track down every undocumented person accused of committing a crime. Providence – and many cities around the country – could come into conflict with Trump if the new president orders local police departments to take a more active role when it comes to immigration enforcement. This is similar to the question-mark many states face over marijuana legalization. Remember: federal laws supersede the ones created by states or cities. If the federal government wants to intervene, it may not matter if a state says pot is legal or a community refuses to support some parts of immigration laws.

Politics are in play on all sides of this debate.
One of the top reasons Trump was elected was his position on undocumented immigrants, so it’s unlikely he’ll abandon his repeated calls to deport millions of people. He knows immigration reform resonates with his base, but it’s still unknown if his backers will settle for anything less than what he promised on the campaign trail. On the flip side, Elorza’s comments are designed largely to appeal to liberals and the thousands of immigrants – in the country legally or illegally – in the capital city. Just as ICE and Elorza generally agree that ICE’s top priority should be criminals, it’s likely Trump and Elorza are closer to being on the same page than either of them may be willing to admit. For his part, Elorza maintains he’s going to announce a new inclusive policy in the city or hold an event each week until Trump is sworn in. The first event is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Iglesia Vision Evangelica on Broad Street.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan