The federal government has entered the explosive debate over a King County proposal to bar the feds from searching for illegal immigrants in the county s jail.

KING 5 has obtained a letter written by the US Attorney s Office in Seattle to council members explaining that the policy would allow hardcore criminals to escape federal justice.

The letter, sent on Monday August 26, is signed by Chief of the Criminal Division Robert Westinghouse and says: We believe these prosecutions are important for public safety.

The King County Council is considering an ordinance that would require jailers to ignore federal requests to hold illegal immigrants suspected of all but the most serious crimes.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents typically place holds or detainers on illegal immigrants they find in local jails who are facing serious crimes or who have serious criminal histories.The hold requests that the jail turn the immigrant over to the feds after local criminal matters are resolved so that the feds can consider prosecuting and/or deporting the individual.

Councilmember Larry Gossett introduced the proposal after hearing from immigrants rights groups that the feds were using holds to sweep up immigrants in the King County jail accused of minor crimes.

The US Attorney s letter says the office has prosecuted 15 cases in the past 18 months that were generated because of ICE holds at the King County jail.

The letter says those 15 defendants have a combined 85 prior criminal convictions including assault, indecent exposure, rape by force and numerous drug related convictions.

The US Attorney s Office says without the current policy, those hardcore criminals might be on the street.

At a hearing before the council on Tuesday, ICE s field director who oversees deportations in the Pacific Northwest said that not honoring requests to hold inmates would make ICE s job harder, but it would still try to deport the most dangerous immigrants.

I will now have to go out in the community and find this individual at large, said Nathalie Asher. I would like to minimize this for a variety of reasons.I don t want to be a hindrance to the local communities.

Fourteen members of the public also signed up to testify before the council, many of them in support of the proposed ordinance, which they say unfairly targets hardworking immigrants.

A vote on the proposed ordinance has not been set.

Related links:

Document: Letter to King Co. Council from U.S. Attorney's Office re: ICE detainers

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