Third Circuit Appeals Court Rules That Immigration Detainers are Non-Binding Requests in Ground-Breaking Case

March 4, 2014 8:06 pm

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Ruling Says Local Jails May Be Liable for Wrongful Immigration Detentions in Case of U.S. Citizen Held for Three Days


ACLU National,
ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513

PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today ruled that states and localities are not required to imprison people based on "detainer" requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, recognizing that states and localities may share liability when they participate in wrongful immigration detentions. The ruling in Galarza v. Szalczyk, et al., stems from Lehigh County Prison’s wrongful detention of Ernesto Galarza, a U.S. citizen, who despite posting bail and telling his jailers that he was born in New Jersey was held in jail for three days because of an ICE detainer that stated only that ICE was investigating his immigration status.

Mr. Galarza’s complaint alleges that the detainer was issued based on his race, without any valid basis to believe that he was a removable non-citizen. The Third Circuit’s decision recognized that because ICE detainers are non-binding requests, Lehigh County can be held legally responsible for imprisoning Mr. Galarza for three days on this basis.

Reacting to today’s ruling, Mr. Galarza said, "This ruling makes me very glad because the Court recognized that U.S. citizens cannot be put through what they put me and my family through."

A growing number of states and localities, including California, Connecticut, New York City, Newark, Cook County, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, have adopted laws or policies limiting their involvement with ICE detainers, or declining to treat them as a basis for detention at all. Although ICE has long characterized its detainers as “requests,” this is the first time a federal appeals court has addressed this precise issue.

"Today’s decision confirms that all the states and localities that have decided to limit their entanglement with ICE detainers are well within their rights to do so," said Kate Desormeau of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case. "It’s risky for law enforcement agencies to treat ICE detainers as a basis for detention, as Lehigh County did. Detainers aren’t warrants, and ICE routinely issues detainers without a constitutionally valid basis, as it did in Mr. Galarza’s case."

The Third Circuit’s decision will allow Galarza’s lawsuit against Lehigh County to proceed in district court. The lawsuit seeks damages for Galarza, who lost a part-time job and wages as a result of his imprisonment.

"Locking up Ernesto Galarza for three days hurt him and his family and did nothing to make Lehigh County safer," said Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "We hope Lehigh County takes a hard look at doing favors for ICE."

Ernesto Galarza is represented by Roper, Witold Walczak and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Desormeau, Omar Jadwat, Cecillia Wang, Orion Danjuma and Esha Bhandari of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project; Jonathan Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP; and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Today’s order is available at:

More information about Galarza v. Szalczyk is available at:

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