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Virginia: Undocumented Immigrant Receives $12,000 Settlement for Overdetention

by David M. Reutter

In May 2017, the sheriff’s office in Henrico County, Virginia entered into a $12,000 settlement to resolve a lawsuit alleging an undocumented immigrant was held in jail beyond his scheduled release date.

Following his arrest for drunk driving, James S. Alfaro-Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was the subject of a detainer issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The day after his June 10, 2013 arrest, Alfaro-Garcia was formally charged and bail was set. His family did not post bail because sheriff’s officials told them the detainer would prevent his release.

The criminal case was resolved on July 17, 2013 at 9:30 a.m., which triggered the 48-hour period specified in the immigration detainer for federal officials to take Alfaro-Garcia into custody. When that period expired, however, he was not released. It was not until attorney Jacob Tingen arrived at the jail on the evening of July 19 that Alfaro-Garcia was freed, but only after Tingen obtained authorization from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Tingen sued the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office on Alfaro-Garcia’s behalf, alleging violations of the due process clause, unlawful seizure and false imprisonment. He said Virginia localities are “now on notice” that overdetention of undocumented immigrants will be challenged.

“We’re prepared to bring similar cases in the future if necessary,” Tingen added. “Just because you’re not here with lawful status doesn’t mean you surrender [constitutional] rights or due process.”

“This is an issue that is closely watched by all sheriffs and the Virginia Sheriff’s Association,” said John W. Jones, the association’s executive director. “While the VSA has not taken a position on ICE detainers, most sheriffs have detained ICE detainees without a warrant.”

President Trump has ordered that localities that fail to comply with ICE detainers be designated as uncooperative.

“Throughout the country, sheriffs are very frustrated because we’re all being asked to do the same thing – not just in Virginia,” said Chesterfield sheriff Karl Leonard. “The federal government is asking me to intentionally violate someone’s civil rights and detain them without proper documentation.”

While ICE has changed its documentation from a “request to hold” to an “arrest warrant,” Leonard said the document has no legal effect as it is not issued by a court. “The problem is that no one official signs it – not a federal judge, not a federal magistrate – so it is a worthless piece of paper itself,” he stated. “All we are asking for is legal authority to hold. Just have a judge or magistrate sign it, and we will be happy to hold.”

A Northern Illinois federal district court ruled in October 2016 that ICE detainers issued by the Chicago field office were invalid and detainers for undocumented immigrants held in local jails amounted to false arrest.

“There’s not a single court in the nation that has ruled that [ICE detainers] are mandatory,” Tingen said. As for Alfaro-Garcia, he added, “We expect him to ultimately obtain a green card and live a peaceful life in the U.S.”

In addition to the $12,000 settlement, the state’s Division of Risk Management authorized a payment of $10,928 to cover Henrico County’s legal costs for defending against the overdetention suit. See: Alfaro-Garcia v. Henrico County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00349-MHL. 

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Related legal case

Alfaro-Garcia v. Henrico County