In a case that led to a groundbreaking court decision limiting the power of immigration officials, the ACLU today announced the settlement of a lawsuit it filed in 2012 on behalf of Providence resident and United States citizen Ada Morales, who was twice unlawfully held at the ACI because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials erroneously deemed her to be a deportable “alien.”
Morales was detained at the ACI on the basis of an ICE-issued “immigration detainer,” a form that asked officials to hold a person for up to 48 hours while they investigated the person’s immigration status. Morales’ lawsuit led to a landmark court decision finding that there are critical constitutional limits on the power of immigration and corrections officials to hold people based on these detainers while investigating their immigration status. Specifically, U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell, Jr. ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not permit the government to hold someone in prison based on ICE detainers in order to investigate their immigration status; instead, an arrest and detention must be based on probable cause, not mere investigative interest. The suit also led to the adoption of a policy by the R.I. Department of Corrections that it will honor immigration detainers only if they are backed by a court order.
Under the settlement agreement, federal officials have agreed to pay Morales $35,000 in damages. Officials also issued her an assurance letter showing that ICE’s database makes clear that she is not subject to arrest for immigration purposes. In addition, since Morales sued the agency, ICE has acknowledged that compliance with these “hold” requests is purely voluntary, and directed its officers to stop issuing detainers against individuals merely because they were born outside the United States and do not appear in federal immigration databases.
Morales, who was born in Guatemala and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1995, was taken into custody on criminal charges in May 2009. While she was being held at the ACI, ICE officials lodged an “immigration detainer” against her – assuming, based on her place of birth and their inability to find her records in federal databases, that she was a deportable non-citizen. In fact, the government failed to identify Morales as a U.S. citizen because of the government’s own flawed databases and ICE’s incomplete investigation.
A state judge had ordered Ms. Morales released, but the R.I. Department of Corrections held her in custody for an additional 24 hours solely because of the ICE detainer, and even after she repeatedly told officials she was a U.S. citizen and offered to show them her naturalization certificate and passport. The detention, the ACLU lawsuit successfully alleged, violated her constitutional right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said: “Ms. Morales’s bravery has led to victory in this suit, underscoring the dangers of reliance on flawed immigration detainers. These constitutional violations are unacceptably common, and have led hundreds of localities across the country to reject excessive entanglement with the deportation system.”
ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown added: “Ms. Morales’s case demonstrates that citizens and non-citizens alike are at risk from an overzealous immigration deportation machine. We are pleased that we were able to receive some justice for her, but it also serves as a stark reminder of the need for vigilance as President Trump revs up this cruel machine into overdrive.”
Ada Morales, plaintiff in the case, said: “I wish this had never happened to me, but I’m happy that ICE and Rhode Island officials were held accountable and acknowledged that what happened to me was wrong. My hope is that no one else has to go through what I went through.”