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Nebraska jail first to ax immigration detainers

July 27, 2014

(AP) — At least one Nebraska jail has stopped honoring federal requests to hold suspected immigrants in jail without a warrant, following the lead of other local entities around the country who say the practice puts them at risk of civil rights lawsuits.

Other Nebraska counties may soon follow suit, thanks in part to a push by civil rights organizations.

The 48-hour immigration detainers are issued to local law enforcement by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, asking that immigrants who have been arrested be held for two days after they would normally be released so that federal immigration officials can initiate an investigation and take people into custody, if necessary.

But the practice is under scrutiny nationwide, and several agencies around the country have stopped complying with the detainer requests.

The Hall County Department of Corrections in central Nebraska in mid-June became the first local agency in the state to stop honoring the detainer requests.

Jail director Fred Ruiz said the move came after he consulted with the jail's attorney, the Hall County attorney and the attorney who represents the county's insurance carrier. The lawyers said accepting the detainer requests put the county at risk of being sued.

"It's not that we don't want to cooperate," Ruiz said. "It's a matter of liability."

The federal immigration agency has not helped defend local agencies sued by those who've been detained, Ruiz noted.

"In the last two years or so ... we kept seeing more and more litigation come out around the country and thinking, 'Why are we putting ourselves in this position when no one will assist us?'" Ruiz said.

Ruiz said his jail still holds people suspected of being in the country illegally if federal immigration officials supply a signed warrant to do so.

Several federal courts have found that the detentions violate the Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, including a federal judge in Providence, Rhode Island, in February. A federal appeals court in a Pennsylvania case and a federal judge in Oregon have also since made similar rulings, finding that the detainers are not binding and that the local authorities who held people on an immigration detainer could be sued if they hold someone unconstitutionally.

In Nebraska, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Sarpy County and the federal immigration agency on behalf of Ramon Mendoza, of Papillion, who was arrested in 2010 for misdemeanor traffic violations. The lawsuit says Mendoza — a naturalized U.S. citizen — was kept in jail for four days because officials wrongly suspected he was in the country illegally.

Last year, ACLU Nebraska sent letters to all county sheriff and local police agencies urging them to refrain from accepting federal immigration detainer requests.

Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU Nebraska, said when she received no response, she began gathering information through open-records requests of about a dozen counties with the largest Latino populations to see how they handled the detainer requests.

The ACLU and the nonprofit immigrant advocate group Justice for our Neighbors analyzed the data they gathered, and last week sent letters to six Nebraska counties — Douglas, Lancaster, Dakota, Saline, Platte and Dawson — sharing the analysis and asking them to reconsider honoring the detainer requests. Several of the counties have indicated they're willing to discuss the issue, Miller said.

Iowa's largest jail has also recently stopped honoring federal immigration hold requests. The Des Moines Register reported Saturday that Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarthy issued the order in early June.

Shane Ellison, the legal director for the Nebraska chapter of Justice for our Neighbors, said national research on the practice shows few of those detained have committed serious crimes.

"The majority of people held either ended up having no conviction at all, or they had low-level convictions like traffic-related offenses or petty misdemeanor offense," Ellison said.

ICE stated it places detainers to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released into the community.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work cooperatively with law enforcement partners throughout Nebraska as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities by identifying and removing convicted criminals and others who are public safety threats," ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said in an email.

Neudauer did not answer an AP question about how the federal agency will respond if other Nebraska law enforcement entities decline ICE's immigration detainer requests.

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