Through an interim policy released to the ACLU of Northern California on August 11, 2010, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") has weighed in on a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Northern California against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and the federal immigration agency concerning the County's participation in immigration enforcement.
"We hope this guidance will help stem widespread abuse of local jail authority to improperly detain immigrants, including those who are not even charged with a crime," said ACLU of Northern California attorney Julia Harumi Mass.
Since at least 2005, the Sonoma County Sheriff has been working in conjunction with local ICE agents to target Latino residents of Sonoma County for immigration enforcement through traffic stops. Many residents were subjected to unreasonable searches and even arrested without criminal charges. Ignoring constitutional and statutory limits on warrantless arrests, the Sheriff and local ICE agents used something called an immigration "detainer" or "hold" to place arrestees in the County jail for four days before transferring them to ICE custody for immigration proceedings. During these four days, arrestees were held without notice of the charges against them, and were denied procedural rights normally afforded to immigration detainees. A local organization, the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, objected to the Sheriff's improper use of immigration detainers. Immigration detainers – as the interim policy released Wednesday affirms – are intended to be used by ICE only to request notification when individuals who are in local, state, or federal custody on criminal charges have completed their sentences or are otherwise due to be released.
"When the County failed to heed our call, we worked with the ACLU of Northern California to challenge this unfair, improper practice in court," said Richard Coshnear, spokesperson for the Committee. "While it does not resolve all of our concerns, Director Morton's interim guidance confirms that immigration detainers are merely a request to be informed when inmates are released – not arrest warrants in their own right. We're looking forward to working with the County to implement this guidance locally."
The Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, represented by the ACLU and Latham & Watkins LLP, in a pro bono capacity, sued in September 2008, challenging the practice as beyond the authority of both ICE and the Sheriff, and as being intertwined with racial profiling against Latino residents of Sonoma County. For nearly two years, the Sonoma County Sheriff and attorneys for ICE have fought to defend the practice of using immigration detainers to avoid limits on warrantless arrests and place immigration detainees in the Sonoma County Sheriff's custody without any criminal charges.
"It's a great victory for the Committee and the taxpayers of Sonoma County that ICE's Director has stepped in to confirm that the practices we challenged in court are not authorized," said Julia Harumi Mass, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. "The joint operations of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and the local ICE office went far beyond the use of detainers authorized by law. It is to the public good that ICE has set the record straight."
The interim policy does not resolve all claims in Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County et al. v. Sonoma County et al.