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Federal judge upends ICE practice of asking local police to detain people

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Joel Rubin and Brittny Mejia
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge in Los Angeles this week issued his final judgment in a long-running immigration case, upending the way Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses local police to detain people it suspects of being in the country illegally.

The judgment filed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte formalized an earlier ruling he made in September, which included a permanent injunction barring ICE from using error-prone databases when issuing so-called detainers, which are requests made to police agencies to keep people who have been arrested in custody for up two days beyond the time they would otherwise be held.

The earlier ruling also blocked ICE from issuing such requests to state and local law enforcement in states where there isn’t an explicit statute authorizing police to arrest someone or keep them in custody on an immigration detainer.

The ruling, which applied to ICE activity in all but a few states, appeared to have enormous implications for how the government targets people for deportation. However, attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups that brought the case disagreed over whether the injunction went into effect immediately, and ICE gave no indication it had changed its practices.

This week’s judgment erased any ambiguity.

Under the judgment, ICE has three months to “adopt and implement any policies, practices, trainings, and systems changes necessary to ensure consistent and effective compliance” with the judgment, Birotte wrote. The judge ordered government lawyers to provide him with evidence it had implemented new policies.

“This judgment ensures that ICE has to comply with the court’s findings that the program it’s had for decades is grounded in unconstitutional practices that have to end,” said Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who helped argue the case.

The class-action lawsuit alleged that the databases that agents consult to issue detainers are so badly flawed by incomplete and inaccurate information that ICE officers should not be allowed to rely on them as the sole basis for keeping someone in custody.

Last year, the judge agreed with that assessment, finding that the databases often contained “incomplete data, significant errors, or were not designed to provide information that would be used to determine a person’s removability.”

These errors, according to that decision, have led to arrests of U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens in the country lawfully. From May 2015 to February 2016, of the 12,797 detainers issued in that period, 771 were lifted, according to ICE data. Of those 771, 42 were lifted because the person was a U.S. citizen.

Birotte reiterated that his decision affects any detainer requests issued by an ICE officer in the federal court system’s Central District of California. That designation is significant because it includes the Pacific Enforcement Response Center, a facility in Orange County from which ICE agents send out detainer requests to authorities in 43 states, Guam and Washington, D.C.

If ICE tries to move its detainer operation to another facility, Birotte said, it must alert him in advance and the injunction would follow it to the new location.

All existing detainers issued by the enforcement center were also nullified by the judge’s ruling. Pasquarella said it was unknown how many people that affects, but said it is in “the thousands.”

Finally, Birotte gave ICE a month to alert the thousands of local and state police departments to which it sent detainer requests of his judgment and “its impact on detainers issued by ICE.” He ordered ICE to post its notice prominently on its website and said the agency “shall specifically inform these agencies that a detainer does not provide the legal authority for a state or local law enforcement officer to make a civil immigration arrest.”

An ICE spokeswoman declined to comment on the judgment and would not say whether ICE had yet changed its practice of issuing detainer requests. Instead, she referred reporters to a statement released Friday by the White House.

“A single, unelected, district judge in the Central District of California issued a legally groundless and sweeping injunction that — if not immediately lifted — will guarantee the release of innumerable criminal illegal aliens into our communities putting citizens at dire risk,” the statement said. “This ruling undermines the pillars of immigration enforcement and blocks traditional and vital law enforcement cooperation that has occurred for decades.”