U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it conducted a major operation last week targeting so-called “sanctuary cities," including Seattle.
Focusing enforcement on certain cities because of their local laws would represent a new tactic for immigration authorities, according to immigrant advocates and local government leaders.
But details of the operation raise questions about whether it really differed from normal enforcement activities in the Northwest.
Officials with the agency, known as ICE, said they arrested 498 people nationwide over a four-day period, including 26 in Washington and seven in Oregon.
The ICE press release heralded "Operation Safe City" in bold letters, and said the effort focused on cities and regions where local law enforcement agencies limit their cooperation with ICE.
Acting ICE Director Tom Homan, in the release, called such places "a magnet for illegal immigration" and said they require his agency to "dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities."
Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the messaging seemed to be designed to put pressure on leaders in "sanctuary cities."
"We certainly haven't seen before where the federal government is treating cities as if they're not working on the same side, that they need to send a message or punish cities," he said.
But Adams, whose organization provides legal help to people facing deportation, said the messaging was the only thing distinctive about the announcement.
He said number of arrests made locally -- 33 in the Northwest -- is on par with a normal week for ICE.
"Every week they bring in over 100 new people to the Tacoma detention center," he said. "If they are trying to argue they did some big operation against these 'safe cities' or 'safe areas,' it just doesn't add up. It's just a big press campaign."
Adams was referring to the Northwest Detention Center, where people from across the Northwest await deportation proceedings in Tacoma.
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said the operation was "similar to what we do on a regular basis," including prioritizing people with criminal convictions. ICE said 317 of those arrested nationwide had convictions on their records.
If ICE hoped to send a message, some local government officials were confused about why they were on the receiving end.
One arrest occurred in Seattle, which is widely considered a "sanctuary city" due to a 2003 ordinance stating city police will not act as "de facto immigration officers."
But Haley said other arrests occurred in places like Lake Stevens and Sedro-Woolley, where officials said they have no such policies on the books.
"We just don't have anything like that," said Sedro-Woolley City Supervisor Eron Berg.
"The Sedro-Woolley Police Department will coordinate with anybody," he said, though he added that local police do not enforce immigration laws. "They treat other jurisdictions just like they'd like to be treated, so if they're asked to help, they'll help."
Other arrests occurred in Tukwila, Federal Way, Burien, Auburn, and other cities, Haley said.
ICE caused confusion last week after initially announcing 33 arrests in Portland. In reality, the 33 arrests were spread across Washington and Oregon.
Leaders in "sanctuary" cities and counties don't deny that federal authorities can come in and make immigration-related arrests. They simply decline to play an active role.
Operation Safe City, according to ICE officials, targeted areas where local police and sheriffs do not comply with the agency's requests to hold people in jail. ICE officials make those "detainer" requests when they suspect someone arrested by a local law enforcement agency is in the country illegally.
It's possible ICE was sending a message to Northwest county sheriffs. In Washington and Oregon, few if any sheriffs honor detainer requests in their jails, often citing a 2014 federal court decision in Oregon.
Sheriffs say they risk violating that decision by complying with detainer requests, so they're unlikely to change that policy, regardless of pressure from ICE.
In March, the Trump administration began publishing lists of jurisdictions it called "non-cooperative" on immigration enforcement, including 11 counties in Washington.
The administration initially said it would publish the lists on a weekly basis, but ended the practice after three weeks.