Colorado ACLU Suit Challenges El Paso Sheriff’s Attempt To Hold Immigrants

The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a lawsuit contending a sheriff's department is improperly holding people in the country illegally on behalf of federal authorities in what it says is the first legal challenge to a Trump administration effort to work around court rulings limiting how it can work with local jails to enforce immigration laws.

The complaint in Colorado District Court alleges that El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder "holds prisoners in custody for days, weeks and even months after state law requires their release."

It contends that the department uses a paperwork trick to try to evade legal restrictions on doing so: After inmates suspected of being in the country illegally have been ordered released by a court or served their sentence, the ACLU alleges, the sheriff's department files a form indicating they are now housing the inmates on behalf of the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Courts in several states have ruled that sheriffs cannot hold people on behalf of ICE without violating the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. In 2015, following a settlement with a suburban Denver sheriff's office, the ACLU announced that all Colorado sheriffs other than Elder had agreed to no longer honor ICE "detainer" requests.

The Trump administration has begun a test program in Florida in which they contract with local jails to hold immigrants using the same paperwork as in El Paso Count. It's an attempt to get around the legal obstacles courts have erected to sheriffs assisting with immigration enforcement. It is exploring rolling the program out nationwide.

John Krieger, a spokesman for the Colorado ACLU, said he believed the lawsuit is the first legal challenge to the theory that "a housing contract with a jail can insulate a county sheriff from liability for holding prisoners at ICE's request after state law authority for confinement has ended."

Elder said in a statement that his agency is simply following the same procedures it established in 2007 when it signed a contract to assist ICE.

"Make no mistake, we have and will continue to fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement," the sheriff said.