Federal immigration officers requested woman’s detention
Two immigration-rights groups have filed a lawsuit against Okanogan County on behalf of an immigrant who was detained in the county jail for two additional days at the request of federal immigration authorities, in violation of a judge’s order that she be released.
Holding the woman after the judge ordered her release violated her fourth-amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, according to the lawsuit.
State and local law enforcement officers are authorized to detain people only for state and local offenses and are prohibited from holding people for federal offenses, Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview last week.
The immigrant rights project and Columbia Legal Services filed the lawsuit on Oct. 9 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Washington. The suit was filed against Okanogan County; the county Sheriff’s Office; and Tammi Denney, the county’s chief corrections deputy.
Maria del Rayo Mendoza Garcia was initially held in Okanogan County jail under an agreement with Douglas County, where she was arrested for fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in March 2019.
Mendoza was arrested in Douglas County on or around March 18, 2019, then transferred to Chelan County, and then to the Okanogan County jail, pending arraignment in Douglas County. While she was still in custody in the Okanogan County jail on March 20, a U.S. border patrol agent interviewed Mendoza, according to the legal complaint.
After the interview, the agent issued a request that Okanogan County detain Mendoza. The request was accompanied by a statement of probable cause alleging that Mendoza had violated a civil-immigration provision by being unlawfully present in the United States. The statement of probable cause had been signed by the border patrol agent, but not by a judge, as is required by federal law, according to the complaint.
Later that same morning, a Douglas County District Court judge ordered that Mendoza be released on her own personal recognizance. She was not required to post bail.
But the Okanogan County jail faxed a “Border Patrol Hold/Notification of Release” to both U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), informing them that Mendoza was scheduled to be released at 11:45 a.m. that day. The letter said, “[t]he subject can be picked up as early as today” and “within 48 hours,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that, by authorizing the border patrol hold, Denney, as legal custodian, prevented Mendoza’s release, defying the court order. Mendoza was held in the county jail until March 22, when an officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) picked her up.
After picking her up at the jail, ICE transported Mendoza to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. She later appeared before an immigration judge, who set bond and permitted Mendoza to return to her family in Douglas County, Adams said. Mendoza will be scheduled for immigration hearings, he said.
Both CBP and ICE are divisions of DHS. CBP enforces immigration laws at and between ports of entry. ICE is responsible for interior enforcement and for detention and removal operations.
Okanogan County has a practice of honoring so-called detainers from federal immigration authorities, Adams said. “What we’re seeing is that they hold that person and call CBP. They have no authority to hold people for a federal crime,” he said.
There have been at least a dozen instances over the past couple of years where Okanogan County has held people for a few days even after their charges have been dismissed or the individual has posted bail, Adams said. Although there is a pattern of unlawful detentions, the circumstances of individual cases may differ, he said.
After receiving repeated complaints, the immigration rights network and Columbia Legal Services began looking into the Mendoza case. They filed the lawsuit after Mendoza sought their help, Adams said.
Agreements with other jails
Mendoza was in the Okanogan County jail on the misdemeanor charge because Douglas County doesn’t have its own jail and uses the Okanogan County jail as its primary jail, according to Douglas County Sheriff Kevin Morris. People arrested in the northern part of Douglas County are transferred immediately to Okanogan County, but those arrested in the southern part of the county are held in the Chelan County Regional Justice Center for up to 24 hours before being transferred to Okanogan County.
In addition to the contract with Douglas County, Okanogan County has a memorandum of agreement with federal immigration authorities to hold certain federal detainees, according to the lawsuit.
The agreement allows the county to hold someone on behalf of federal immigration authorities, but only if the federal agents are pursuing criminal charges and present a statement of probable cause, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said. The county holds people for up to 48 hours while federal agents arrange transport to a federal facility, he said.
In those cases, the individuals are presented by federal immigration officials for immigration violations, not for local charges, Adams said. The lawsuit states that Mendoza was never presented to the Okanogan County jail by a federal officer.
Violations such as these are becoming increasingly common in counties across the state, Adams said. Some violations may be unintentional, arising when a local law enforcement officer doesn’t understand the difference between local criminal law and federal civil law, he said. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Columbia Legal Services reached a settlement in February in a similar case they filed in Yakima County.
In some situations, county officers honor a detainer order issued by another law enforcement officer. At other times, an ICE or border patrol agent may check the county jail roster and ask the county to hold an individual whom they’re investigating. Sometimes, a county officer may notify ICE directly, Adams said. “There are different justifications. It’s hard to say — they bounce all over the map,” he said.
Federal immigration officers have a wider latitude than local officials. They can arrest someone if they have a reasonable suspicion that the individual isn’t authorized to be in the U.S., Adams said. But local police can’t do that.
When county authorities detain an individual for federal immigration officers, it not only violates federal law, but also state law. The Keep Washington Working Act, which took effect in May, prohibits state and local agencies and jails from detaining people on behalf of immigration authorities, according to a summary of the law by state Senate staff.
The lawsuit asks Okanogan County to stop the practice of detaining individuals based on administrative requests from DHS. It also seeks damages for Mendoza.
The case is being handled for Okanogan County by its risk-pool attorney, Menke Jackson Beyer in Yakima, according to Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor David Gecas. The plaintiffs agreed to an extension for the county’s reply, which is due in mid-November, Adams said.