ACLU-NJ Applauds Union County for First Countywide Policy in NJ Declining Immigration Detainer Requests

August 12, 2014

Union County leads New Jersey counties in ensuring constitutional protections that build trust among immigrant communities, joining jurisdictions across the country that refuse to honor ICE detainer requests

NEWARK – Union County has become the first New Jersey county to formally adopt a policy declining to hold (PDF) individuals in its jail based on requests issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The move comes in response to a July 15, 2014, request (PDF) from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).

ICE routinely issues requests to jails and law enforcement agencies to hold people detained in their facilities for up to 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) longer than they would otherwise be released because of suspected civil immigration offenses. Until recently, all New Jersey’s county jails routinely honored those requests although they are not legally binding.

Union County’s new practice, in effect as of August 4, 2014, requires the Union County Department of Corrections to release individuals on their scheduled release date unless county officials receive a warrant, court order or other legally sufficient proof of probable cause from ICE. According to ICE data reported by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, between October 2011 and August 2013, Union County received at least 326 detainer requests, sixty percent of which were aimed at individuals who had not been convicted of any criminal offense.

“We applaud Union County officials for recognizing the critical importance of fostering trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement,” said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director at the ACLU-NJ. “The county has discontinued a practice that seriously undermined public safety, posed significant constitutional concerns, and exposed the county to significant liability. We hope and expect other New Jersey counties will follow Union’s lead in adopting similar policies.”

At least two other New Jersey counties have also indicated that they will limit the practice of honoring detainer requests. Both Ocean (PDF) and Middlesex (PDF) Counties will now follow a policy to honor detainer requests only for individuals charged with certain crimes. While these policies represent progress, they both fail at insulating the counties from liability and at sending a clear message to immigrant communities that the counties are not in the business of enforcing immigration law for the federal government. The ACLU-NJ has also been made aware that Camden County has formally changed its policy with regard to honoring immigration detainer requests. However, the ACLU-NJ has not received a copy of Camden’s policy and therefore its contours remain uncertain at this time.

“It is an improvement when even one fewer person is unlawfully held in jail,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “Even so, counties that honor any detainer requests not only ignore the constitutional rights of detainees, but they also shortchange community trust and public safety, all while risking enormous financial consequences. Union County’s approach serves all of the county’s residents and serves as a model for the state and nation.”

Immigration detainers transfer the costs and responsibilities of immigration enforcement from the federal government to local jurisdictions, which lack the resources and authority to enforce immigration law. New Jersey jails have no authority under New Jersey law to deprive people of their liberty based solely on an immigration detainer request. In Galarza v. Szalczyk, a 2014 Third Circuit case brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project involving the detention of a Perth Amboy-born man at the request of ICE, Lehigh County, Pa., paid out a nearly $100,000 settlement for unlawfully keeping him in custody. As a result, the Lehigh County Board of Commissions voted unanimously to end the county’s policy of imprisoning people based on ICE detainer requests.

Recent months have given rise to a national wave of local jurisdictions issuing policies refusing to honor ICE detainer requests. To date, over 160 jurisdictions outside of New Jersey have decided to stop automatically honoring detainer requests, including Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and the states of California and Connecticut.

Recently, several federal courts have made clear that detainer requests are non-binding and that local authorities, and not ICE, are ultimately liable for violations of constitutional rights that result from honoring immigration detainer requests. The ACLU-NJ letter made clear that the organization is prepared to take legal action should a prisoner in New Jersey custody be held unconstitutionally as a result of an ICE detainer request. The ACLU-NJ also warned counties that unless they decline to honor any ICE detainer requests without judicial findings of probable cause or warrant, they expose themselves to unnecessary liability.

The ACLU-NJ, in partnership with immigrants’ rights, community, and faith organizations across New Jersey, will continue to urge counties statewide to follow Union County’s lead and end their policies of choosing to honor ICE detainer requests.

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