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Sheriff Urquhart: ‘Sanctuary city’ doesn’t mean anything

King County Sheriff John Urquhart tells KIRO Radio's Dori Monson how local and federal enforcement works when it comes to immigration. (Drew Barth)

There is one problem with “sanctuary city” rhetoric from all sides, according to King County Sheriff John Urquhart. It’s all meaningless.

Related: Seattle is willing to lose every federal penny over sanctuary status

“I’m sorry that any city right now declares themselves a sanctuary city, because it doesn’t mean anything,” Urquhart said. “And it’s become so political. One side uses ‘sanctuary city’ to beat up the other side. And both sides cannot even agree on what a sanctuary city is.”

“It’s a big political game,” he said.

Sanctuary cities, counties and states have drawn the ire of the federal government. “Welcoming” jurisdictions are similar. KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson explains the issue this way: local police do not ask the immigration status of people they encounter. Urquhart confirmed that his department does not honor detainer orders from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s because local police don’t enforce federal law, he said.

“We’ve been a so called ‘sanctuary county’ for less than a year,” Urquhart said. “We’ve had this policy in place for 30 years. So the fact that we don’t ask, and we don’t allow our officers to ask, the immigration status of a person has nothing to do with the fact that we are a sanctuary county. We’ve done it forever.”

What is a sanctuary city, really?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an ultimatum Monday to places like King County and Seattle, stating that jurisdictions with sanctuary status will be denied grants from the Department of Justice. That funding could amount to millions in federal dollars for local governments. King County Executive Dow Constantine responded by saying the area will not be “bullied” by the feds.

But the whole issue has more to do with politics than the reality of law enforcement, according to the sheriff. Urquhart argues that most jurisdictions enforce the law in a similar manner, no matter what their parenting agencies say. For example, Urquhart points out, the City of Burien has self-proclaimed itself a sanctuary city. But Burien has no jail and no police department. So KCSO would be on the front line of the sanctuary issue and deputies enforce it according to department policy.

“The City of SeaTac is right next door, and is not either one – neither a sanctuary city nor a welcoming city,” he said.  The City of Shoreline is a welcoming city, not a sanctuary city. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. The fact that Seattle is a sanctuary city, means nothing until you look at what policies they are putting in place. And I don’t think they have any policies that are any different than King County or my department.”

Urquhart further argues that King County’s policies are not too different from other counties in Washington state — blue or red — especially when it comes to detainer orders.

“Not recognizing detainer orders is a very common policy across the country,” Urquhart argued. “Washington has 39 sheriffs; I had a meeting last week with 37 of them … we’re talking about the red side of the state now. Not one sheriff recognizes detainer orders, because they are illegal. The State of Washington is not out-of-step with most of the rest of the country.”

“I think politicians should back up on all these grandiose statements because they accomplish nothing,” he said. “They confuse the issue.”

Sheriff Urquhart and Dori went back-and-forth on the issue of immigration and sanctuary cities. Dori even intimated that the sheriff was not being entirely truthful. You can hear the rest of the conversation at length below.

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