Immigrant civil rights suit targets enforcement

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Immigrant advocates filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of a Salvadoran woman who was detained by Frederick County sheriff's deputies in a case they say illustrates the problems with a federal program that has deputized dozens of state and local police departments nationwide to catch illegal immigrants.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleges that Roxana Orellana Santos, now 29, was eating lunch alone at a pond near Buckeystown Pike in Frederick on Oct. 7, 2008, when two deputies approached her, asked for identification, then detained her and turned her over to immigration authorities for possible deportation. Orellana Santos, who came to the United States in 2005 and has a son who was 1 at the time, spent 46 days in federal custody before being released on humanitarian grounds pending the resolution of her immigration case.

According to the suit, neither of the deputies who arrested Orellana Santos was among about 26 members of the sheriff's force trained under the federal program known as 287g after the legal provision that created it. Orellana Santos's lawyers said the deputies' actions amounted to racial profiling and reflect a broader anti-immigrant agenda that Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has fostered since enrolling his force in the 287g program in 2008.

"Since there was never any suggestion of criminal activity by Ms. Orellana Santos, her questioning and detention were clearly based on one element: her ethnic appearance," said Jose Perez of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based nonprofit civil rights organization. "This is the essence of racial profiling."

The immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland is also representing Orellana Santos.

A spokeswoman for Jenkins said he had no comment on the suit because he has not read it.

A vocal crusader against illegal immigration, Jenkins has often pointed to the 287g program as a crucial tool for keeping the community safe and recently touted the force's 500th arrest of an illegal immigrant. He has also stated that his deputies are "not pulling over people because they look Latino. . . . We need probable cause to make a traffic stop or an arrest."

But advocates say the incident involving Orellana Santos proves otherwise. And they say it explains why, according to the most recent data provided by Jenkins, less than 10 percent of the illegal immigrants his deputies arrested through 287g were charged with felonies. About half were arrested for driving without a license and another 10 percent were charged with misdemeanor traffic offenses.

The lawsuit also alleges that Jenkins is motivated by a separate arrangement he has made with federal authorities to be reimbursed for housing illegal immigrants detained by area police in the county's detention center. The federal government pays the county $83 a day for each detainee, but Jenkins told a House committee in March that the actual cost is $7 a day.

"Jenkins' anti-immigrant rhetoric and . . . financial incentive to arrest and detain as many undocumented foreign nationals as possible . . . has fostered an atmosphere that is conducive to and has encouraged and/or tolerated selective enforcement of local laws and discriminatory practices in [the sheriff's office]'s implementation of 287g," the lawsuit contends.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reshaped the program earlier this year to focus it more sharply on targeting illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes or major drug offenses. Still, critics contend that the new guidelines lack teeth.

Orellana Santos, who declined to be interviewed, is asking for $1 million in damages. The lawsuit names Jenkins and the arresting deputies, Frederick's Board of County Commissioners, officials in the Baltimore office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Julie Myers, who was assistant secretary of ICE at the time.

Even if Orellana Santos wins in court, she is not necessarily protected from deportation. In contrast to criminal cases, evidence obtained unconstitutionally is often admissible in immigration courts.

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