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Identity & Community

ACLU Suit Bars County Jail From Holding Suspects Based On Immigration Status Alone

Allegheny County owes one resident $25,000 for unlawfully detaining her in 2011 based on the false assumption that she entered the country illegally.

Allegheny County can no longer hold individuals based on solely on their suspected illegal immigration status, according to a settlement reached Wednesday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The agreement calls for the county to pay Angelica Davila $25,000 in damages for unlawfully detaining her in the county jail overnight.

Davila, who legally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old, was taken into custody by Pine Township police in 2011 on something called an "immigration detainer" following a traffic violation. A detainer request from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is often used to hold an individual for up to two days without filing a charge while authorities investigate the detainee’s citizenship status. 

“The larger point of this case and others like it is that county jails should not be holding people on these detainers because there is a high risk of error and the county is the one that is going to be held liable if ICE makes a mistake,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney Sara Rose, who represented Davila.

As part of the deal, Allegheny County will no longer honor those requests. 

"The change of policy has meant a lot to me. It may be a small step, but it's a step forward," Davila said in a statement. “I hope it prevents what happened to me from happening to someone else.”

Rose stressed that customs detainers are not arrest warrants, and they do not have to be supported by a determination of probable cause. In this case, U.S. immigration had bad information in its database that made it appear as though Davila entered the country illegally. Officials discovered the truth a few hours later and reported the error to both the arresting officer and Allegheny County, but Davila was not released until the next morning.

"We are grateful that Allegheny County will no longer hold people in jail on immigration detainers,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “ICE uses detainers to imprison people without due process and, in many cases, without any charges pending or probable cause of any violation.”

County Solicitor Andy Szefi said in a statement that the jail’s existing policy, which went into place in June, required a specific form and warrant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, neither of which require the signature of a judge or magistrate.

“Pursuant to the amended policy, forms I-247 and I-200 will no longer be accepted at the jail,” he said. “Appropriately authorized detainers and warrants will continue to be accepted."

While the policy is binding, as a legal contract and unlike a court order, it could be changed by future administrations.

“But the county did agree that the court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement for a period two years," Rose said. "So if the county were to change its policy within two years, we could go back to the same judge and resolve the dispute there.”

Introduced last month, state Senate Bill 997 would force local municipalities to honor all immigration-related requests by the federal government or risk losing state funding.