Immigrant's Detention in D.C. Points to Holes in 'Sanctuary City' Status

September 24, 2018

By Peter Hermann

As part of its promise to make the nation’s capital a welcoming place for immigrants, the District has vowed it won’t turn over arrestees to federal immigration agents unless that person is a convicted violent offender.

But despite its status as a “sanctuary city,” the District finds itself powerless to shield many undocumented immigrants who get arrested — even those accused of minor crimes — from possible deportation.

The issue recently sparked frustration among city leaders and anger among activists when a man suspected of theft was taken from the D.C. courthouse last month and handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Benjamin Ordoñez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was accused of stealing a purse containing $200. He had just been released by a judge and told to return for his trial.

“He never walked out of the court building,” said his court-appointed attorney, Lucas Dansie.

That’s because, unlike in other cities, the District’s judicial system is run not only by local agencies, but also through federal partners that do not adhere to the city’s sanctuary policies. Prosecutors and workers who conduct pre- and post-trial supervision of arrestees are federal employees. So are U.S. marshals, who provide security and transport inmates — and took Ordoñez into custody after his court hearing.

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