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As fears grow about the enforcement of federal immigration policies, several Northwest Indiana police departments said they generally don’t report individuals to federal authorities unless they're suspected or convicted of a crime.

Few departments have written policies, and many allow their officers discretion when making decisions to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of undocumented individuals.

Alfredo Estrada, a Merrillville attorney who specializes in immigration law, said the lack of written policies is why local "welcoming city" ordinances are needed.

Supporters of such ordinances say they help protect public safety for all residents, including immigrants, who otherwise might be deterred from reporting crimes if faced with the threat of deportation following contact with law enforcement.

Critics, including some who turned out at a recent Lake Station City Council meeting, said welcoming city ordinances offer too much protection to undocumented immigrants.

Gary’s City Council adopted a “welcoming city” ordinance in May, and elected officials in East Chicago adopted a similar measure in June.*

Lake Station has tabled its proposed ordinance, in part, to work out questions about a section dealing with the amount of discretion police would be allowed in arresting individuals without legal status.

Estrada said everyone agrees criminals should be brought to justice.

However, the way in which the federal government is prioritizing people for deportation has caused an uptick in fear among immigrants, Estrada said.

“I see people from all areas of the world come through my office,” he said. “The uptick is not just with undocumented immigrants. Those with legal status are concerned, too.”

Under the Obama administration, removing convicted criminals was a top priority. An executive order signed in January by President Donald Trump is broad and ambiguous, and puts all immigrants without legal status at risk, Estrada said.

State and federal law requires local police to cooperate with federal immigration officials by sharing information, Estrada said. A welcoming city ordinance doesn’t prohibit cooperation; it is intended to ensure information about the immigration status of those seeking government services is not kept on file, he said.

“If you don’t have the information, you can’t communicate it,” Estrada said.

Practices vary across departments

The Gary Police Department is required to take several actions under the city's new ordinance, including expediting certifications for victims of criminal activity. Crime victims who obtain such certifications from police can then use them to obtain a visa. 

Gary police recently said they are working on a timeline for implementation. 

“The Gary Police Department supports this ordinance and will continue to treat the citizens of our community in a manner in which their rights are protected, and their safety remains our top priority,” Police Chief Larry McKinley said in a statement.

Many other Northwest Indiana police departments and Indiana State Police said they typically don’t report individuals to federal immigration authorities unless the person is involved in a crime that is more serious than a traffic offense. However, they stressed their cooperation with federal authorities.

Of more than a dozen local departments surveyed, most said they notify ICE if they learn — during the course of their own, separate investigation — that an individual does not have legal status.

Being in the United States without documentation is a civil violation. Individuals who enter the country illegally could be charged with a misdemeanor in a federal criminal court, but deportation proceedings would be handled separately in an administrative immigration court, Estrada said.

Michigan City police don't make notifications to ICE, Michigan City Chief of Services Royce Williams said.

"If the driver is a suspected illegal immigrant, they are treated no different than anyone else and are cited/arrested if applicable," he said.

Hammond police notify ICE of an individual only after felony charges — accompanied by a probable cause affidavit — have been filed with a court, Lt. Steve Kellogg said. 

"Infractions, misdemeanors and felonies are all investigated in the same way regardless of the citizenship of the individual," Kellogg said.

Hobart police do not check individuals' immigration status, but will contact ICE if the federal agency notifies the department that a person the department is investigating is a previously deported felon, Lt. James Gonzales said.

"As a practice, we do not seek out previously deported felons," he said.

In Valparaiso, a written policy says officers may notify ICE when a person is arrested or detained for any violation other than immigration and it's learned the individual is in the country illegally, Sgt. Michael Grennes said.

Schererville police typically notify ICE when an individual involved in a serious crime is booked into jail, Cmdr. Brian Neyhart said.

Munster police notify ICE if an individual is involved in a serious crime, Lt. Ed Strbjak said. Whiting Police Chief Stephen Miller said his department has no written policy, but he would request that his officers notify ICE of anyone who may have been involved or is suspected in a serious crime.

Griffith Police Chief Greg Mance said his officers likely wouldn't notify ICE unless an individual is involved or suspected of a crime that is more serious than a traffic offense.

Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said his officers are not precluded from contacting ICE about individuals. However, Williams and many other chiefs said their officers rarely deal with such situations. It's more likely county jail staff would notify ICE of individuals without legal status, they said.

Policies vary at jails, too

The Porter County Jail is an exception.

Chief Deputy Jeff Biggs said it's not the jail's policy to check on a person's immigration status if that person was born outside of the U.S.

The jail does not honor ICE detainers, or written requests to hold inmates for ICE without a warrant, Biggs said. A U.S. District Court judge in Chicago in 2016 ruled detainers issued by ICE's Chicago field office were unlawful.

In addition, the Porter County Sheriff's Department would not participate in a federal program that allows ICE to delegate immigration enforcement authorities to state and local police, Biggs said.

"Our focus is on who's committing crimes against the people and property of Porter County, no matter what their immigration status is," he said.

The Lake County Jail makes notifications to ICE 24/7 for individuals who tell jail staff they weren't born in the U.S., Warden Ed Davies said.

ICE then decides whether to interview the inmate. If the federal agency wants to take custody of a person, it must submit proper paperwork, Davies said.

Jail staff and ICE agents met in February, and all of the jail's policies meet ICE requirements, he said.

LaPorte County Sheriff John Boyd said staff at the county jail and his patrol officers notify ICE when there is any question about person's legal status.

The LaPorte County Sheriff's Department gives ICE agents plenty of time to determine whether to pick up an inmate. If proper paperwork is submitted, the jail will hold the person until ICE arrives, he said.

"If we don't hear back from ICE by the time the person is to be released on local charges, we release," he said. "We want to make sure we're not violating their constitutional rights."

Individuals brought to the jail for misdemeanor offenses such as driving without a license often quickly post bond. In those cases, ICE likely would not have time to secure a legal detainer and the person would be released, he said.

There's a misconception that state and local police have the power to enforce immigration law, Boyd said.

"We have several officers assigned to federal task forces, and they can enforce federal law narrowly and specific to their duties," he said. "They don't have broad enforcement powers."

Asked whether he would consider participating in the ICE program that delegates enforcement authority, Boyd said, "We have critical manpower issues right now. It's all we can do to enforce local criminal and traffic laws."

* Editor's note: This story has been updated to show East Chicago adopted a welcoming city ordinance in June.


Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.