Judge rules feds need representation in San Juan County immigration lawsuit

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A federal court judge ruled last week that the U.S. government would need to respond to allegations that undocumented immigrants were being detained unlawfully at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The allegations were made in a class-action lawsuit filed against the San Juan County Board of Commissioners in November by three Mexican nationals detained at the jail in 2012 and 2014.

Attorneys representing the undocumented immigrants contend their clients' civil rights were violated because they were detained without due cause while their immigration status was being investigated by ICE agents.

However, the attorneys failed to name the agency as a defendant in their lawsuit, which U.S. District Court Judge William P. Johnson said was a mistake.

Johnson stated in a written order filed on March 26 that the case had the potential to define the "constitutional parameters of U.S. immigration policy" and it was therefore necessary for the U.S. government to defend its program in court.

Albuquerque attorney Scott Eaton is representing the San Juan County Board of Commissioners and detention center administrator Tom Havel in the lawsuit.

He filed a motion in January requesting that the federal government be included as a defendant in the lawsuit.

He said Tuesday that a number of civil cases have recently been filed across the country challenging ICE's practice of issuing nonbinding "immigration detainers" to local jails, and it was apparent that the federal government needed to defend the practice itself.

"The county does not issue detainers and plays no role in deciding when they are issued," Eaton said in an email. "Detainers are a tool created by the federal government for the federal government to assist the federal government in immigration enforcement."

He said it was therefore the responsibility of the federal government, not San Juan County taxpayers, to respond to allegations of civil rights violations.

Attorney Kristina Martinez of the Santa Fe law firm Rothstein, Donatelli, Hughes, Dahlstrom, Schoenburg and Bienvenu is representing Moncerrath Gutierrez and Susana Palacios-Valencia in their lawsuit against the county.

A third person, Ricardo Olivas, has been dropped as a plaintiff, according to court records.

Martinez could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but she argued against joining the U.S. government in a response filed in February.

Martinez claimed in the response that the plaintiffs do not seek to have federal law invalidated and ICE would not be adversely impacted by the plaintiffs succeeding in their lawsuit.

Johnson stated in his written order that such a claim was "rather incredible."

A trial date has not been scheduled in the case.

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