In the space of a dozen years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials issued to Rhode Island Department of Corrections’ (DOC) administrators 462 “immigration detainers” against individuals who are identified in the ACI’s computer system as U.S. citizens. That is one of the many facts disclosed in briefs (motion for summary judgment brief against the Federal Defendants, motion for summary judgment brief against Defendant Wall) filed on Friday by the ACLU in its lawsuit on behalf of Ada Morales, a North Providence resident who has twice been the target of baseless immigration detainers as a deportable “alien” even though she is a U.S. citizen. The lawsuit, filed in 2012, alleges ICE and Rhode Island officials often bypass Constitutional requirements and safeguards when they detain individuals on immigration grounds. As a result of these detainers, as happened in Ms. Morales’ case, individuals have been held at the ACI for no other reason than to allow ICE officials to investigate their immigration status.

In February 2014, U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. ruled that there are critical constitutional limits on the power of immigration and corrections officials to detain people while investigating their immigration status, and that Ms. Morales “set forth plausible allegations that she was unconstitutionally detained solely based on her national origin and Hispanic last name.” In July of 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld that ruling. The briefs filed by the ACLU on Friday ask the court to reject all the remaining arguments that ICE and the DOC have raised in an effort to avoid liability for their illegal detention of Ms. Morales.

Among the other facts disclosed in the ACLU brief is that the immigration official responsible for issuing the detainer against Ms. Morales didn’t bother to run her Social Security Number through a database that would have confirmed her citizenship status, and that the former field director of ICE’s regional office acknowledged that “an ICE agent does not have to make a determination that a person is in the country illegally before issuing a detainer.”

In May 2009, Ms. Morales, who was born in Guatemala and naturalized as a United States citizen in 1995, was taken into custody on unrelated criminal charges. While being held at the ACI, an ICE “immigration detainer” was lodged against her. Even though a judge ordered Ms. Morales released, the R.I. Department of Corrections held her in custody for an additional 24 hours because of the ICE detainer. “I told the Rhode Island officials that I’m a U.S. citizen, and I offered to show them my naturalization certificate and passport, but no one would listen. They just assumed they could hold me because of my Guatemalan background and the color of my skin,” Ms. Morales said.  An ICE official later apologized to Ms. Morales for her wrongful detention, but acknowledged that it could happen again. In fact, she had been unlawfully detained in similar circumstances once before, in 2004. 

An ICE detainer is a document that requests that state or law enforcement officials detain a person to give ICE extra time to take the person into federal custody for deportation purposes once state or local custody ends. The suit alleges that ICE officials issue detainers “without a sufficient investigation to determine whether arrestees who are perceived to be ‘foreign’ (based on their place of birth, race or ethnicity, foreign-sounding last names, and/or English language ability) are in fact U.S. citizens.”

ICE agents and state and local officials typically treat a detainer as authorizing continued imprisonment, even if no state or federal charges are pending and no deportation proceedings have been brought. Unlike a criminal warrant, immigration detainers are issued by ICE itself, and are not based upon a probable cause determination by a neutral judicial officer.

No date is set on when the judge will rule on the ACLU’s motion. The briefs were filed by Kate Desormeau of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and volunteer attorneys from the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Boston.