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Washington judge finds detention to question immigration status unconstitutional

A judge for the Pierce County Superior Court [official website] in Washington state ruled [order, PDF] Tuesday that local enforcement officers cannot extend detention of individuals to question them about their immigration status. Judge Kathryn Nelson reasoned that local law enforcement officers do not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws even if they have probable cause to detain individuals for a violation of law. This is especially true when the detention was solely for the purpose of questioning immigration status. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State (ACLUWA) [advocacy websites] praised the recent decision as it clarifies that law enforcement officers cannot prolong a detention to question individuals about their immigration status. The decision stems from a case filed by NWIRP and ACLUWA on behalf of four Latino immigrants who were pulled over by Kitsap County sheriff's deputies for a broken headlight and suspicion of illegal shellfish harvesting. Although the plaintiffs were able to show proper identification for commercial shellfish harvesting, they were detained for further questioning of their immigration status. They were ultimately transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

US Immigrant detention systems have been criticized in the past. In May the ACLU of Georgia reported [JURIST report] that undocumented immigrants [JURIST backgrounder] face constitutional and human rights violations in Georgia detention centers. In September 2011 the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that immigrants who are imprisoned while fighting deportation cannot be held indefinitely [JURIST report] without a bail hearing and that the government must justify the need for the prolonged detention. In March 2011 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) [advocacy website] released a report detailing investigations into immigrant detention centers [JURIST report]. The report expressed concern over increased use of detention by the US government, citing a doubling in detention of non-citizens by ICE. It criticized the US government for viewing detention as a necessity and not as an exception in its enforcement. The IACHR also found the average 30-day detentions troubling, arguing that it is likely to increase as backlogs of immigration cases increase. The number of immigration cases pending is expected to rise in light of the numerous state laws that have been enacted to address the issue of immigration.

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