U.S. government, San Juan County jail dispute liability over ICE detainments

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Attorneys for the San Juan County jail have filed a motion opposing an attempt by the U.S. government to remove itself from a federal lawsuit involving the treatment of suspected illegal immigrants.

The jail claims in the motion, filed Friday, that the U.S. government is attempting to "disclaim responsibility" for its former practice of asking local jail officials to detain people suspected of being in the country without the proper documents.

The practice is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in November by immigrants' rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

Albuquerque attorney Scott Eaton, who is representing the jail in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In the lawsuit, the group claims at least three immigrants were detained unlawfully at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The immigrants — Moncerrath Gutierrez, Susana Palacios-Valencia and Ricardo Olivas — claimed in the lawsuit they were held at the jail for days, despite only being cited for minor traffic violations.

Gutierrez and Olivas are no longer plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The group claims in the lawsuit that the detainment of an individual based solely on their immigration status is a violation of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights and requests that the U.S. District Court of New Mexico prohibit the act.

Somos Un Pueblo Unido initially sued only the jail and the San Juan County Board of Commissioners, but a federal judge ruled in March that the lawsuit challenged federal immigration policy and therefore the U.S. government would also need to be named a defendant.

Somos Un Pueblo Unido argued in a motion filed Friday that the lawsuit would not impact current immigration policies and the federal government should therefore be dismissed as a defendant.

Santa Fe attorney Kristina Martinez is representing Somos Un Pueblo Unido in the lawsuit. She said Wednesday she does not feel the federal government needs to be a party to the lawsuit.

"We were ordered by the judge to bring them in," she said. "Our position is that we don't believe they are necessary defendants. We believe the case can continue against the San Juan County defendants."

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a motion last month the entire issue is moot — ICE no longer requests that immigrants be detained at local jails, in part due to the many lawsuits challenging the practice.

U.S. trial attorney Sarah Vuong declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Under current policy, an individual can only be detained if sufficient evidence exists to show he or she entered the country illegally.

An ICE agent can request notification when a suspected illegal immigrant is released from a local jail, but only if the individual is a convicted felon, or suspected of terrorism or gang activity.

Because the policy has changed, the Justice Department asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

The jail said in its motion Friday that the parties should exchange evidence in the case before determining whether the issue is moot.

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.