ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Immigration Agency's Unlawful Detention of U.S. Citizen

April 24, 2012

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of a North Providence resident who has twice been detained as a deportable “alien” even though she is a U.S. citizen. The lawsuit alleges that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and Rhode Island officials often bypass Constitutional requirements and safeguards when they detain individuals on immigration grounds.

In May 2009, Ms. Ada Morales, who was born in Guatemala and who naturalized as a United States citizen in 1995, was taken into custody and had an ICE “immigration detainer” lodged against her. Even though a judge ordered Ms. Morales released, the RI Department of Corrections held her in custody for an additional 24 hours because of the ICE detainer. “When I found out that I was being detained for immigration reasons, I was shocked,” said Ms. Morales. “I told the Rhode Island officials that I’m a U.S. citizen, and I offered to show them my naturalization certificate and passport, but no one would listen. They just assumed I was a deportable alien because of my Guatemalan background and the color of my skin.” An ICE official later apologized to Ms. Morales for her wrongful detention, but acknowledged that it could happen again. In fact, she had been unlawfully detained in virtually identical circumstances once before, in 2004.

An ICE detainer is a document that advises law enforcement officials that ICE may seek to take an individual into custody for deportation purposes once state or local custody ends. As has happened with Ms. Morales on two occasions, ICE officers and state and local law enforcement officials typically treat a detainer as authorizing continued imprisonment, even if no state or federal charges are pending and no deportation proceedings have been brought. Yet, unlike a criminal warrant, immigration detainers are issued by ICE itself, and are not based upon a probable cause determination by a neutral judicial officer.

The lawsuit claims that federal and state officials violated Ms. Morales’s constitutional rights to due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and seeks injunctive relief and damages for violation of her rights. It alleges that ICE officials issue detainers “without a sufficient investigation to determine whether arrestees who are perceived to be ‘foreign’ (based on their place of birth, race or ethnicity, foreign-sounding last names, and/or English language ability) are in fact U.S. citizens, despite knowing that this will adversely affect naturalized U.S. citizens on the basis of their race, ethnicity, and/or national origin.” The suit also claims that ICE has “deliberately obfuscated” the legal effect of detainers “for years, leading local and state officials to believe that they are required to continue detaining individuals on the basis of immigration detainers” even though detainers are requests, not commands.

The suit is being handled by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Mark Freel and Erika Lindberg, and National ACLU attorneys Omar Jadwat and Kate Desormeau. 

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