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ALLENTOWN, PA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Ernesto Galarza, a New Jersey-born U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent who was held illegally for three days in the Lehigh County Prison. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents ordered his detention, erroneously believing he was an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
"This kind of injustice is what happens when law enforcement engages in racial and ethnic profiling," said Valerie Burch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the attorneys representing Galarza.
On a Thursday afternoon in November 2008, Galarza was mistakenly swept up in a series of drug arrests by Allentown police aimed at, among others, the construction contractor for whom he worked, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Galarza, who had nothing to do with the crimes, was jailed at the Lehigh County Prison and charged. He was later acquitted.
Though he posted bail the next day, Galarza was not released because ICE had issued an immigration detainer against him, directing prison officials to hold him while it investigated whether he could be deported to the Dominican Republic. Galarza's Social Security card and Pennsylvania driver's license were in his wallet at the time of his arrest and in the prison's possession during his detention. Galarza was not told why he was being held for nearly three days.
"I was shocked and upset that they assumed I am an immigrant. No one bothered to check or ask me about it. It's clear that they only reason they decided I'm Dominican is because I'm Latino," said Galarza. "I was born in New Jersey, and I'm a proud American. This isn't how Americans should be treated. It's like getting slapped in the face."
The Allentown Police Department has a policy of aggressively enforcing immigration law and works closely with ICE to identify immigrants thought to be unlawfully present. Referring to the arrests of such people as "round ups," the Allentown Police Department reported in its response to a Right to Know request from the ACLU of Pennsylvania that it "netted" 120 undocumented people in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
"This case is a perfect example of how 'aggressive' enforcement of immigration laws in the supposed name of keeping us safe from immigrant criminals can lead to devastating consequences for law-abiding Americans," said Jonathan H. Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP, another attorney representing Galarza.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU-PA argues that by jailing Galarza as an unlawfully-present immigrant without even notifying him, officials from ICE, the Lehigh County Prison and the Allentown Police Department collaborated to violate his civil rights.
The lawsuit, Galarza v. Szalczyk, et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and seeks damages for Galarza, who lost a part-time job and wages as a result of his imprisonment.
In addition to Burch and Feinberg, Galarza is represented by Witold Walczak and M. M. Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Omar Jadwat and Cecilia Wang of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project; and Seth Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.