Neither the Athens Police Department nor the Ohio University Police Department routinely ask people about immigration status, but both agencies do cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Local police agencies do not enforce immigration law. Some cities and counties, however, have policies that shield undocumented immigrants from detention by ICE — cities may limit local police from asking about immigration status, and county jails may refuse to comply with requests from ICE to detain people suspected of entering the country illegally. Those cities are often called “sanctuary cities.”
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said at a Sept. 28 OU Student Senate meeting that Athens is a “welcoming city,” which he said is the same thing as a sanctuary city.
“We are an inclusive and welcoming city,” Patterson said. “I want you guys to know that we are a welcoming city, and by saying that they’re a welcoming city, believe me, we espouse all the same things a sanctuary city does … everyone’s protected.”
Patterson said APD officers do not randomly ask people they encounter about immigration status.
“We’re not going to randomly look at people’s papers,” Patterson said. “That makes zero, zero sense. … Believe me, we have all walks of life in Athens.”
Some students and faculty, however, believe that Athens and OU have not gone far enough to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants.
During a February demonstration in Baker Center, protesters occupied the fourth floor lobby and said they would not leave until OU was declared a “sanctuary campus.” Seventy were arrested for trespassing, but a student was found not guilty and the charges against remaining students were dropped.
APD Chief Tom Pyle said he is aware of a small undocumented immigration population around Athens.
“They are very law-abiding and certainly we only enforce Ohio criminal law, not federal statute,” Pyle said. “It’s, like, maybe twice in my career I think the department encountered an undocumented immigrant who had committed a serious felony that involved ICE where we would notify the agency.”
Pyle said that APD usually only forwards information to ICE if the person is associated with a serious felony. APD doesn’t have much say in whether undocumented immigrants are detained after ICE is notified, because the jail is controlled at a county level and has its own policies.
“I can’t remember a single time ICE ever put a detainer on somebody, and besides, that’s not our call anyway,” Pyle said. “Even if our agency didn’t want them to be detained, we’d contract a third party for our jail services with the regional jail. ... We have no control over it.”
OUPD Lt. Tim Ryan said his department does not routinely ask about immigration status. When officers discover a person is undocumented during an investigation, officers “prioritize our community’s safety and compliance with the law in determining our response,” he said.
Ryan said OUPD officers are commissioned by the State of Ohio and have no authority to enforce federal laws.
“Nothing has changed about the way we do business as a result of the leadership change in Washington,” Ryan said in an email. “We will continue to cooperate with the lawful and Constitutional requests of other law enforcement agencies, just as we always have, but as I stated at the outset, we will always make the protection of our community’s rights and safety our highest priority.”
OU complies with all federal laws regarding immigration, OU spokesman Dan Pittman said.
Pittman said OU supports international students by issuing them certain forms that allow them to interview for visas, helping them receive benefits related to their student visas and providing assistance through International Student and Faculty Services.
—Ellen Wagner contributed to this report.