The federal government has caused the illegal detention of 834 U.S. citizens since 2008 under a program intended to catch illegal entrants at the border, even though federal agents knew or should have known the victims were citizens, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Southern California.
The plaintiff in the case is Gerardo Gonzalez, a native-born American citizen who has been in jail in Los Angeles since December on a drug charge. Despite being granted bail, Gonzalez was not allowed to post bail in May because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—the federal agency responsible for security at the national borders—has placed an “immigration hold” on him.
The lawsuit seeks to make the government rescind any existing holds and reissue them only if probable cause is established. ICE filed more than 125,000 of these detainers in Southern California between October 2009 and February 2013, according to the lawsuit, 36,450 of them last year.
Intended to give officials time to check on the immigration status of persons whose status is in question, an immigration hold is a request from ICE to local authorities to prolong an individual’s detention for up to five days after they are otherwise eligible for release. Their use has grown immensely: ICE has issued 1 million of them to local authorities nationwide since 2008.
The detentions may be extended, however, and the Complaint alleges that several Americans have been illegally detained for weeks and even months. Inmates in Los Angeles County jails with immigration holds spend on average of 20.6 more days behind bars than inmates without them, according to the lawsuit.
Examples cited in the Complaint include Ernesto Galarza, a 34-year-old natural-born citizen detained for three days in November 2008; Conway Wiltshire, a naturalized citizen detained for three months in 2007; Mark Lyttle, a U.S.-born citizen held for 51 days; Rennison Castillo, a naturalized citizen and Army veteran detained for 226 days (seven-and-one-half months) in 2005-2006.
According to the Complaint, local and federal records readily available to ICE agents clearly show that Gonzalez is a native-born U.S. citizen born in the Pacoima community of Los Angeles. Noting that low-level agents can request holds with no supervision and no finding of probable cause, the Complaint alleges that this has caused 834 U.S. citizens and more than 20,000 legal, permanent residents with no criminal records to be detained—both violations of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.