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'Sanctuary' Label Shouldn't Apply To Johnson County, Sheriff Says

Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning rejects the notion his department is providing sanctuary for people in the country illegally.

Some members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, want to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” following the murder of 32-year-old Kate Steinle in San Francisco. The man who killed Steinle had been deported multiple times, and Yoder wants to cut some federal funding for cities and counties that don’t cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“There’s been a lot of criticism directed at local law enforcement, especially local sheriffs,” says Denning. “‘You’re really putting this person back on the street?’”

Six Kansas counties – including Johnson – appear on a list of sanctuary cities put together by the Center for Immigration, a think tank that advocates for less immigration. But Denning says unlike San Francisco, there’s no policy in Johnson County not to cooperate with ICE officials.

“The Board of County Commissioners has never debated it, never called it a ‘sanctuary county,’” Denning says.

Neither has Denning as sheriff.

“Law enforcement officials can’t legislate policy,” Denning points out.

But, Denning says he often runs into trouble when he informs ICE his department has arrested a foreign-born individual. He says he has 48 hours to bring state or local charges, at which time he has to release the person, regardless of whether ICE has acted.

On this, Denning says the constitution is “very clear” – and he’s not in the business of violating anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights. So he lets those individuals go.

“It’s the legal thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. I’m going to stand my ground on it,” Denning says.

But local governments that refuse to comply with a federal request to detain some immigrants in the country illegally could run afoul of Yoder’s proposed rules for federal grants.

The Congressman has said cities and counties shouldn’t be able to ignore federal immigration laws. He wants the Department of Homeland Security to certify local governments are complying with federal immigration policies.

C.J. Grover, with Yoder's office, says Yoder doesn’t believe the proposed amendment would affect Johnson County.

“Congressman Yoder is confident that Johnson County will be able to make that certification. The goal of the amendment is to ensure that every jurisdiction listed in the study – or any study for that matter – is not defying federal law,” says Grover.

Denning says he’s been talking to the Congressman, too, and doesn’t think Johnson County is at risk of losing federal funding for emergency management and other services. But, the sheriff says, he’s told Yoder it’s time for policymakers to fix the immigration system.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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