Rhode Island's Department of Corrections will no longer honor federal immigration detainers without a warrant, the governor's office told The Associated Press on Thursday, addressing concerns from civil liberties and immigrants' rights advocates that people's constitutional rights were being violated.
The new policy was sent Thursday to Corrections Director A.T. Wall by Gov. Lincoln Chafee. It says the department should not hold anyone on an immigration detainer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless a warrant has been issued.
The change comes five days after the AP asked about state policy amid court rulings in Rhode Island and elsewhere that have prompted many law enforcement agencies to stop honoring detainers or place limits on them, such as requiring warrants.
Thursday's change came a day after Chafee had ordered a policy on detainers that the advocates said still posed constitutional problems because it would have honored detainers if removal proceedings had already begun, even if there was no warrant. The reason for Thursday's change was not immediately clear.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the change.
"We think it's great, and we're very pleased that the state has revised its policy to meet very important constitutional standards," he told the AP.
The state was honoring the detainers as recently as this week, according to Daniel Modricker, a spokesman for ICE. He did not immediately return a request for comment after Thursday's policy was announced.
In February, U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell in Providence determined that immigration officials had no probable cause to issue a detainer for Ada Morales, a U.S. citizen, and therefore her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures were violated. He gave the go-ahead to her lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Corrections, which honored the ICE detainer. Most ICE detainers issued in the state are handled by the Department of Corrections.
Since then, a federal appeals court in a Pennsylvania case and a federal judge in Oregon have made similar rulings. They both found the detainers are not binding, and that therefore a local authority that honors a detainer can be held liable if it's found to have violated someone's constitutional rights by holding them past the time when they should otherwise have been released.
Those decisions have prompted a growing number of law enforcement agencies to say they will not honor the detainers, according to the ACLU, which also represents the people detained in the Rhode Island and Pennsylvania cases. Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy counsel for the national ACLU, says the number of agencies refusing or placing limits on detainers has now grown to more than 130 in 20 states.
County sheriffs in states including Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, have stopped or placed restrictions on honoring detainers. City police departments that have done so include Philadelphia and Las Vegas. Some of those agencies have said they are making the change because they do not want to be sued.
Will Lambek, co-coordinator of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, a community group that advocates for the rights of people in the country illegally, says he and others met with Chafee and other advocates the day after the judge's ruling in February to urge him to stop honoring the detainers, and had sent him updates over the months about the other court decisions, but to no effect until this week.
Lambek said they frequently come into contact with people who are affected by the policy, including one man who has been held at the state prison since December on a charge of driving without a license. Though he could post $100 bail to be released, he has been told an immigration detainer is pending, and a good chance he would be deported to Mexico. He is sitting in prison rather than posting bail in hopes that the governor decides to stop honoring the detainers, Lambek said.
"This is a really controlling force in people's lives," he said. "A trip to the grocery store could mean you're being deported."
One of Chafee's first acts when he took office in 2011 was to rescind an executive order that cracked down on illegal immigration. He also supported charging in-state tuition for students who are in the country illegally and allowing immigrants to obtain driver's licenses regardless of their legal status.