Immigrants sue San Juan County detention center over ICE detainments

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Somos Un Pueblo Unido officials announced Wednesday that they have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court over what they claim was the illegal detention of three immigrants at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

The immigrants-rights group said the San Juan County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Ken Christesen violated the civil rights of at least three immigrants, and potentially approximately 200 other individuals, by detaining them at the county jail on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The announcement was made Wednesday morning outside the detention center and was attended by about 20 supporters, including the three immigrants who are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The action is being brought by the Santa Fe law firm Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg & Bienvenue.

Attorney Kristina Martinez said the lawsuit is meant to challenge ICE's practice of issuing nonbinding "immigration detainers" to local jails without also filing criminal charges against the individuals detained.

"ICE detainers are not enforceable," Martinez said. "Local jails do not have to recognize the requests."

She said the San Juan County Adult Detention Center does detain individuals at the behest of ICE and is liable for damages as a result.

Christesen said that the San Juan County Sheriff's Office works closely with federal authorities and, if an individual is found to have entered the country illegally, then deputies or the jail staff will contact ICE.

"As long as they are violating the laws here in the state of New Mexico, we are going to enforce the law," he said.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the San Juan County Board of Commissioners adopted a policy on July 1 that prohibits the detention center from honoring detainment requests unless the individual is charged under federal statutes or booked on state or local charges.

"It is something that we have been working on," Carpenter said. "What mainly we are looking at is eliminating the exposure that would create any unnecessary settlements down the road."

Tom Havel, administrator at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, said his staff has been enforcing that policy since it was implemented.

However, attorneys for the plaintiffs claim that at least one individual was held at the jail on an immigration detainer after the policy was adopted.

Ricardo Olivas, 22, of Farmington, claims in the lawsuit that he was pulled over by an officer from the Farmington Police Department on Friday, July 11, 2014, for driving without a license and for failing to register his work trailer.

Olivas, a Mexican national, said the officer contacted ICE, and the agency issued an immigration detainer stating that he could not be released because of his immigration status.

Although the detainer notice indicates that an individual should not be held for longer than 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, Olivas was held at the detention center until Tuesday, July 15, 2014, the complaint states.

Olivas, a self-employed landscaper and handyman, was then transported to a facility in Albuquerque. According to the complaint, Olivas said in a statement made Wednesday morning that he has lived in Farmington since he was 3 years old and married a U.S. citizen. He said after being transported to Albuquerque, he was moved to a facility in El Paso, Texas, where he was held in jail for months awaiting his day in court.

He said in an interview that he has been granted a one-year permit and is now applying for citizenship.

Two more plaintiffs, both 41-year-old Mexican nationals living in Farmington, claim they were detained without due process at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in 2012.

Moncerrath Gutierrez, a pipeline construction worker, was pulled over by a deputy from the San Juan County Sheriff's Office on July 6, 2012, for failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, the complaint states.

He was held for three days and was transported to an ICE holding facility in Albuquerque on July 9, 2012, the complaint states.

He said through an interpreter on Wednesday that he was eventually released on a $3,000 cash bond, and he is now seeking a work permit.

Susana Palacios-Valencia, a housekeeper, claims in the lawsuit that she was held on an immigration detainer for more than a week at the detention center in April 2012.

She was detained by a Farmington police officer for failing to pay the fine on a traffic violation, the complaint states. She said through an interpreter on Wednesday that she feared for her children and husband while detained.

She said in an interview that she was released on a $4,500 cash bond and is expected to appear in court in February 2015.

The lawsuit claims that the defendants acted "fraudulently, oppressively, maliciously, and in knowing and conscious disregard" of the plaintiffs' rights, and it requests that the U.S. District Court of New Mexico rule that detention of an individual based solely on an immigration detainer is prohibited by the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs are also seeking unspecified damages for distress, emotional anguish, loss of liberty and deprivation of constitutional rights.

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.