Las Vegas police don‘t call their jurisdiction a "sanctuary city."
But the Metropolitan Police Department also doesn‘t plan to change a policy that earns it that designation.
Local law enforcement agencies‘ refusal to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law has been thrust into the spotlight following the July 5 fatal shooting of a San Francisco woman at the hands of a man authorities said was in the U.S. illegally.
Kathryn Steinle, 32, was shot while strolling with her father along a San Francisco pier. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 56, a Mexican national with five deportations and multiple felony drug convictions, was charged with murder.
Citing a longstanding city policy of not enforcing federal immigration law, the San Francisco Sheriff‘s Department had recently released Lopez-Sanchez from jail, ignoring a request by federal authorities to detain him.
Las Vegas police differentiated themselves from Bay Area authorities in a written statement to the Review-Journal, issued Monday: "We do not consider ourselves a sanctuary city."
But under former Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Metro last year joined hundreds of cities and counties when it stopped cooperating with immigration detainers. That is a process by which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, asks local law enforcement agencies for information about inmates or to hold them in custody for up to 48 hours because ICE intends detain them.
Metro‘s decision came after an April 2014 federal court ruling that an Oregon county had violated a woman’s Fourth Amendment rights by holding her in jail without cause past her release date.
At the time, Gillespie said the detainers were not taking a political stand on immigration, but waiting for the federal government to provide a constitutional solution to the immigration issue. Federal officials could provide a warrant or a judicial determination of probable cause if they wanted to take custody of an individual, police said.
"LVMPD police officers do not act as agents of the U.S. immigration (sic) and Customs; to do otherwise can seriously undermine our relationships with immigrant and minority communities," Metro said. "We are hopeful that the federal government can establish the proper mandates and more clear procedures to reform this issue."
What are ‘sanctuary cities?‘
The recent battle between federal and local jurisdictions dates to the 1980s, when American churches banded together to shelter hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central American wars in defiance of federal refugee quotas. San Francisco joined other so-called "sanctuary cities" including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in enacted laws limiting cooperation with federal authorities.
Congress, in response, passed legislation in 1996 allowing cities and states to enter into agreements with federal agencies to enforce illegal immigration policies.
Las Vegas Metro and other jurisdictions in Nevada eventually did so. From fiscal years 2008 through 2011, 6,848 immigration detainers were issued for prisoners at the Clark County Detention Center, a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse found. Of those prisoners, 4,404, or 64 percent, had no prior criminal convictions on their record.
Immigrants rights groups criticized the partnership for fostering mistrust among police and immigrant communities, making it less likely crimes would be reported.
Reza Athari, a Las Vegas immigration attorney who opposes ICE detainers, said fear of deportation is still an issue among his undocumented clients.
"It‘s getting better now, but still there are a lot of people who are afraid to go to law enforcement because of past history," Athari said.
With the presidential election season underway, the San Francisco slaying has sparked new controversy about "sanctuary" policies. Presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Rand Paul have denounced them as unsafe, and legislation has been proposed that would outlaw cities from ignoring federal immigration policy.
Laura Martin, a Las Vegas-based spokesperson for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the incident in San Francisco should not cloud the underlying problem of a broken immigration system.
"It‘s unfortunate and tragic what happened to this woman, and it‘s a random act of violence that‘s horrific," Martin said. "But it‘s unfortunate that people are using her death to push anti-immigrant policies, and we don‘t agree with that."
Martin said immigrant rights groups have insisted "all along" that the federal government should be targeting for deportation people with criminal convictions on their record and not "people selling flowers on the street."
Nevada has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrants of any state in the nation, at 7.2 percent of its population, according to a three-year study by the Pew Research Center ending in 2012.
Nevada’s undocumented population declined by 20,000 in 2012, to a total of 210,000 in the final year of the study.
In addition, Nevada‘s undocumented population made up the highest portion of its workforce in the nation, consisting of 10 percent of employed workers in Nevada, according to the study. Nationally, a total of 8.1 million undocumented immigrants made up an estimated 5.1 percent of the country‘s workforce in 2012.
Most of those workers were in the construction industry, Athari said, which is making a comeback after several down years in Clark County and should see attendant increases in the undocumented population.
Otto Merida, president of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, said he disagreed with San Francisco‘s policy, but he was frustrated with inaction by federal authorities.
"We need to have Republicans and Democrats to be serious about this issue, (but) everybody‘s taking advantage of the hardworking Hispanics who are here legally and I‘m tired of that stuff."