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ACLU threatens court fight against NJ county jails over inmate immigration detainers

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

PUBLIC SAFETY: New Jersey’s ACLU chapter is urging authorities in all 21 counties not to honor federal immigration detainers, which it says aren’t legally binding, and is threatening to sue those who continue to do so.

“Immigration detainers transfer the costs and responsibilities of immigration enforcement from the federal government to local jurisdictions, which lack the resources and authority to enforce immigration law,” ACLU-NJ notes.

“New Jersey’s county jails should be on notice that immigration detainer requests do not give license to wrongfully hold someone without probable cause or a warrant,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “By choosing to honor these optional requests, New Jersey counties undermine public safety by diminishing immigrant communities’ trust in local law enforcement and raise the prospect of significant constitutional violations.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) routinely issues detainer requests to hold inmates for up to 48 hours longer than they ordinarily would before release — excluding weekends and holidays — because of suspected civil immigration offenses.

ICE sends them directly, without going to a judge, the ACLU notes. In several cases, the inmate is undocumented and possibly deportable. However, the ACLU says that doesn’t happen in every case.

County jails in New Jersey received at least 5,844 detainer requests from ICE between October 2011 and August 2013, nearly two-thirds of which involved people charged but not yet convicted of crimes, the ACLU said, citing date from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Federal courts “have made clear that detainer requests are non-binding and that local authorities, and not ICE, are ultimately liable for violations of constitutional rights that result from honoring immigration detainer requests,” the organization said.

It also told law enforcement authorities that it is “prepared to take legal action should a prisoner in New Jersey custody be held unconstitutionally as a result of an ICE detainer request.”

“If county officials are not moved to stop honoring detainer requests out of respect for the constitutional rights of detainees or the desire to build community trust and public safety, they should still act out of economic self-interest,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom.

“Looking at the settlements that counties around the country have paid out for unlawfully holding prisoners at ICE’s request makes clear that honoring immigration detainer requests simply doesn’t pay,” Shalom said.

Last August, the ACLU-NJ and its partners worked with former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Police Director Samuel DeMaio to make Newark the first New Jersey jurisdiction to adopt a formal policy of rejecting warrantless immigration detainers. Princeton followed suit with its own limited detainer policy in November 2013.

This month, Middlesex “became the first New Jersey county to acknowledge that ICE detainer requests are not mandatory and amend its detainer request policy,” the ACLU said.

In addition, the organization said, “153 jurisdictions outside of New Jersey have decided they would no longer automatically honor detainer requests, including Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and the states of California and Connecticut.”

Earlier this year, Lehigh County, Pa., agreed to a nearly $100,000 settlement after a federal court found that it unlawfully kept a Perth Amboy-born man in custody. The Lehigh County Board of Commissions also ended the practice of honoring ICE detainer requests.

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