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Settlement possible for immigrant detainee lawsuit
The lawsuit was filed by plaintiffs who believed their civil rights were violated after being held at the jail on an immigration detainer
FARMINGTON — A federal judge has granted preliminary approval for a settlement of a class-action lawsuit regarding the alleged illegal detention of immigrants at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.
The proposed settlement could cost the county as much as $724,000 and require it to implement new policies regarding inmates and their immigration status or national origin. Under the settlement, all claims made by the plaintiffs against the detention center would be released.
The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 19, 2014, by Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based immigration rights group, on behalf of dozens of plaintiffs who believed their civil rights were violated after they were held at the jail on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, immigration detainers.
John C. Bienvenu, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said the proposed settlement is an important step for setting a precedent in regard to how county jails should respect immigration detainers only when accompanied by a judge's order or warrant. He said if jail officials comply with immigration detainers without judicial orders, they are exposing themselves to violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Somos Un Pueblo Unido Executive Director Marcela Díaz said in a press release that the group is pleased the county is willing to settle and institute policies to protect the civil rights of every resident.
Plaintiff Susana Palacios-Valencia, who was one of the original plaintiffs identified in the lawsuit, is scheduled to received $25,000, and Somos Un Pueblo Unido could receive $15,000 if the settlement is approved. Palacios-Valencia claimed in the lawsuit she had been held more than a week on an immigration detainer in April 2012.
Also in the proposed settlement, 192 individuals detained at the jail on an ICE immigration detainer in the three years before the lawsuit was filed can submit a claim to receive $2,000 each.
And Travelers Insurance, the county's insurer, also will pay $300,000 for the plaintiffs' attorneys fees and expenses as part of the settlement.
Federal law states jails can maintain custody of individuals up to 48 hours before transferring them into ICE custody or releasing them.
The lawsuit states the alleged incidents took place after a policy adopted by the San Juan County Board of Commissioners on July 1, 2014, prohibited the detention center from honoring detainment requests unless the individual is charged under federal statues or booked on state or local charges, according to Daily Times archives.
The stipulation of agreement in the case states that the policies "were developed as a result of plaintiffs' and plaintiffs' counsel's efforts preceding and during this lawsuit."
As part of the proposed settlement, an immigration detainer must be accompanied by a warrant or order signed by a judge in order for an immigrant to be detained or delivered into ICE custody.
County Chief Operations Officer Mike Stark said that part of the proposed settlement is the same as the 2014 policy, which is current.
Representatives of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office and the Farmington Police Department both said the proposed settlement will not affect their departments' policies.
Bienvenu said portions of the proposed settlement will introduce additional safeguards for inmates at the jail.
For instance, jail employees will not ask about an individual's immigration status or national origin and such information will be treated as confidential, according to Bienvenu. And a notice will be posted in the booking area of the adult detention center notifying inmates they are not obligated to speak to or meet with ICE officials.
P. Scott Eaton, one of the attorneys for the county in the case, said recent federal court cases determined that detainers are not mandatory orders from the federal government, and local law enforcement officials don't have an obligation to enforce them.
For this lawsuit, Eaton said the county simply honored a written request by government officials to hold Palacios-Valencia, believing in good faith that it was appropriate and lawful. He added the county never intended to do anything in violation of the law.
A hearing is scheduled for possible approval of the proposed settlement on Aug. 10 in an Albuquerque federal court.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.