ACLU: Local jails holding immigrants for too long

Local jails are being accused of holding immigrants, who are suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, for longer than they should, according to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The letter, obtained exclusively by this newspaper, was sent to seven sheriffs across the state. In that letter, the ACLU suggests sheriffs should not recognize requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to detain immigrants who might be up for deportation. Letters were sent to sheriffs in Butler, Cuyahoga, Clark, Franklin, Montgomery, Mahoning and Warren counties.

“ICE comes in and says, before you let go of that person, hold on for another 48 hours while we get things together on our end,” Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist for ACLU’s Ohio chapter, said. “This is a request (from ICE), it isn’t a demand. If you have no legal authority to hold a person, you can’t hold a person. You have to have at least some judicial order, you have to have a court look at it to hold that person longer.”

The ACLU only sent letters to counties who get frequent federal requests to hold immigrants suspected of being here illegally. Hamilton County had 487 requests from ICE but Daniels said the sheriff there is actively working on changing the way the jail processes federal holds on immigrants.

The cases typically involve an individual who has either been released on bond or had criminal charges dismissed. In such cases, ICE officials will ask jails to continue to hold individuals, suspected of being here illegally, while the agency determines if they’re ready to take custody over the issue.

In total, 126 prisons and jails across Ohio have received at least one request from ICE to hold an individual on the detainer, according to data provided by the ACLU.

A spokesman for ICE said the agency simply requests law enforcement to notify the feds before releasing someone suspected of being in the country illegal. That hold is not to exceed 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, Khaalid Walls, the region’s communications director for the federal agency, said in an email statement.

“When law enforcement agencies turn criminals over to ICE rather than releasing them into the community, it enhances public safety and the safety of law enforcement. To further this shared goal, ICE anticipates that law enforcement agencies will comply with immigration detainers.”

Still in the wake of two federal district court rulings earlier this year, which questioned the use of the detainers, ACLU officials believe when jails cooperate with ICE requests they could be liable in lawsuits.

As a result, Daniels said the ACLU has sent letters to jails across the country and more than 100 counties have decided to stop acknowledging the federal immigration agency’s request for detainers.

“But, there’s thousands (of counties) that have not,” Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, who is an outspoken proponent of stricter immigration laws and securing the borders, countered.

As of Thursday, the Butler County jail wasn’t holding any suspects on a request from ICE. The jail does, however, house dozens of immigrants daily who are in the custody of the federal government and awaiting possible deportation.

And, from 2012 and nine non-consecutive months of 2013, ICE requested the Butler County Jail to continue detention of 395 suspects, according to data the ACLU obtained from the federal government and provided to this newspaper. The Franklin County Jail received 1,901 requests — the highest number in the state. Warren County jail received 86 requests and Montgomery County received 234 requests from ICE.

In Butler County, roughly 62 percent of those immigrants are convicted, while in Montgomery County, only 40 percent end up convicted, according to the same data.

Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims said his department has been working with the federal government on detainers for years without issue. He was not immediately able to provide the number of immigrants being held on a federal detainer in his jail Wednesday.

Both sheriffs in Butler and Warren counties said they are currently waiting for attorneys to review the ACLU’s letter before deciding if they will take any action to change the jail’s relationship with the federal government.

“We’re trying to figure out what avenues we’re going to (take), what we’re not going to do,” Jones said. “We’ll see what the courts and the attorneys filter out in the end. But, we believe we’re doing OK with what we’re doing at this point.”

The Montgomery County Sheriff was not immediately available to comment on the ACLU’s letter.

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Reporter Lot Tan contributed to this report.