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ACLU Sues to Halt Out of State Transfers of Immigrant Detainees From OC Jails

Photo by Gabriel San Roman

Back on Mar. 27, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes announced that his agency planned to get out of the jail bed space business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But that didn’t mean the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) ever sought to swing open cell doors at Theo Lacy Facility in Orange or James A. Musick Facility in Irvine, allowing immigrant detainees to reunite with family. Instead, the OCSD noted that “those individuals housed on behalf of ICE will most likely be transferred outside of California.”

Confirming as much, ICE has 120 days to clear out of OC jails, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit today seeking to stop them from shipping immigrant detainees out of state.

“Transferring these immigrants hundreds or thousands of miles away will make it exceedingly difficult for the immigrants to maintain their legal representation or otherwise access the courts,” the suit reads. “Transfers outside of Southern California are also unnecessary; ICE has legal authority to release many of these individuals, and can transfer the rest to a large facility within the Southern California area, at Adelanto.”

The civil liberties group claims that such transfers would run afoul of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act as well as violate the U.S. constitution’s Fifth Amendment due process clause, not to mention ICE’s own policies.

Several immigrant detainees, mostly from Central America and Africa, are represented in the suit. All have similar concerns about proposed transfers. Ubaldo Arroyo is currently detained at Musick after having been picked up by ICE on Feb. 23. He has a mixed-status family that resides in Anaheim and is being represented pro bono by attorneys from Santa Ana’s Public Law Center.

“If he were transferred far away and his attorneys could not represent him, he would be unable to pay for another lawyer to represent him,” the suit reads. “He often need to meet with his attorneys for hours at a time. Many of the issues he needs to talk about are very sensitive, including about his family and other issues that he only feels comfortable talking about when personally with his attorneys in a confidential setting. He would not feel comfortable discussing these issues with his attorneys over the phone or by mail.”

For the ACLU, who is representing both Public Law Center and Public Counsel in Los Angeles, it isn’t a matter of mere preferences. The two nonprofit legal organizations are described as being of “limited resources,” bereft of the ability to conduct their work for clients if transferred out of state. “Without in-person confidential meetings with their attorneys, imprisoned immigrants are less willing to share private information about their cases, which undermines their attorneys’ ability to provide their clients with legal advice and to represent them effectively in court,” the suit reads.

Legal representation can be the difference between getting deported or not. According to an analysis of government data from January to July 2018, about 27 percent of immigrants in OC jails who have obtained counsel win relief from removal orders. That number shrinks to just five percent with no representation.

And it’s not just lawyers. Being separated farther away from family members, who often play supportive and key roles in immigration cases, only adds to the hardships.

“ICE decision to transfer immigrants thousands of miles away from their lawyers and families violates the Constitution and ICE’s own policies,” says Sameer Ahmed, staff attorney with ACLU of Southern California. “While we applaud Orange County for ending its dealings with ICD, we call on ICE to release these vulnerable immigrants so they can get a fair day in court with the support they so desperately need.”

At the time of the suit’s filling, attorneys from the plaintiffs haven’t been provided any information about when ICE plans to begin transferring immigrant detainees out of OC jails or where they’d be heading. The ACLU also plans to file a preliminary injunction to stop any such transfers prior to a full trial addressing the suit’s claims.

Sounds like those expanded OCSD custody mental health services within Theo Lacy and Musick will have to wait for now.