Kansas City Agencies Respond To Executive Order On Immigration Enforcement

Jan 26, 2017

Kansas City Mayor Sly James said at a forum Tuesday night that the Kansas City Police Department would not enforce federal immigration laws "unless they are absolutely forced to do it."
Credit Alyssa Dinberg / American Public Square

Local officials and law enforcement agencies responded to President Trump’s executive order on immigration this week with a blend of disappointment and commitment to narrowly defined compliance.

In an executive order Wednesday, President Trump cracked down on “sanctuary jurisdictions,” cities and counties that won't hand over immigrants in the country illegally who are not charged with a criminal offense. The order says those municipalities “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” It requires that sanctuary jurisdictions “do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law," although experts have questioned the president’s authority to restrict all funding.

Johnson County

No cities or counties in Kansas or Missouri have declared themselves sanctuary jurisdictions, but Johnson County is one of six Kansas counties on a 2014 Homeland Security list of jurisdictions who have declined to fully comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t comment on any past cases, but says that the department complies with federal law.

“The Johnson County sheriff’s office only operates inside the law, whatever the state and federal laws are,” says Deputy Rick Howell, the department’s public information officer. “We are not a political entity in the sense that we take an issue leaning one way or the other on immigration. Our job is to strictly enforce the law for the state and federal agencies.”

Howell described a typical scenario: A person born outside the U.S. is arrested for some offense. Within 24 hours, the sheriff sends that person’s name to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which may respond with a “detainer” request. Once local charges are dispensed with, the county notifies ICE. If they have not been picked up by federal agents within 48 hours, they are released.

“We do not hold anyone against their civil liberties outside of what the law says we can do,” Howell says. “So in other words, if there’s not a local charge, not a warrant, not a detainer, if there’s no reason the court wants them held, we do not hold people against their civil liberties.”

Howell says the department is still assessing the impact of the executive order, but he thinks little will change.

“Right now, Johnson County is operating within the structure of the law, and we hope to continue to do so,” Howell says.

Kansas City

Big-city mayors across the country—from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles—responded with anger and defiance to Trump’s order this week and vowed not to comply. But a 2008 Missouri law bans cities—including Kansas City—from adopting sanctuary policies.

Speaking on the eve of Trump’s executive order, Mayor Sly James said that city police don’t intend to do the federal government’s heavy lifting.

“Our police department has no desire and no interest in enforcing immigration laws,” James said Tuesday. “That’s the federal government’s part, not ours. They won’t do it. They haven’t done it, and they probably won’t do it unless they are absolutely forced to do it. But we believe if the feds want people to do something, they need to get their tails down and get it done. We’re not going to help them.”

James spoke as part of a panel discussion on the impact of neighborhoods on education. His comments were part of a broader conversation about the potential impact of enforcement on communities.

“Why do we want to go in and disrupt neighborhoods, disrupt families where people are living peacefully?” James asked. “People who break the law should be handled. People who are not breaking the law should be left alone.”

But the Kansas City Police Department is under the control of a state-appointed board of commissioners, not the mayor. On Thursday, a police spokeswoman would neither confirm nor disavow the mayor’s remarks.

“KCPD does not have specific guidelines and all inquiries are referred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” Sgt. Kari Thompson wrote in an email statement. “We defer to ICE on all interactions and enforcement concerning those who are undocumented. We refer to them and our actions are guided by this agency.”

Thompson had no comment on the implications of the executive order for the department. And on Thursday, the mayor’s office reaffirmed its opposition to asking local agencies to enforce immigration law.

“The mayor’s been clear previously and echoed Tuesday night that enforcing federal immigration law is not within the responsibility of local law enforcement,” says James Roberts, the mayor’s director of communications. “KC is a diverse, welcoming community and always will be, but if the federal government intends to execute federal law through local law enforcement, it would serve as an unfunded mandate.”

Brian Ellison is host of Statehouse Blend Missouri and reports on Missouri politics for KCUR. He can be followed @ptsbrian or reached by email at brian@kcur.org.