Detention center faces more legal trouble

The legal issues continue for the Farmville Detention Center, as a lawsuit involving the facility grows. In an order filed on Friday, April 26, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Nachmanoff agreed with a request made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Now the ACLU’s lawsuit, which names Farmville Detention Center Director Jeffrey Crawford as a defendant among others, is turning into a class action suit. 

Before we get into what that means, let’s look at the case itself. You might remember it from our coverage last year. The case involves one question. Is it legal for ICE to continue to detain someone, regardless of the result of their court case? That’s what the ACLU alleges is happening now and has been for some time. The argument is that even if someone wins their immigration case, ICE has been refusing to release them immediately. 

“(Petitioners) remain in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) custody in Virginia despite winning their immigration cases months ago based on findings by an Immigration Judge that they would likely be persecuted or tortured if deported to their home countries,” the ACLU filing states. 

Specifically, the current lawsuit involves four detainees the ACLU claims are being held unlawfully, one in Farmville and three at a Caroline County facility. Instead of releasing these men after they won their immigration hearings, the filing continues, ICE keeps them detained, claiming to be looking for an alternative country to deport them to. But again, this is happening despite the fact an immigration judge ruled in their favor. 

“Petitioners’ continued detention is arbitrary and unlawful, and they request that this Court order their immediate release from ICE custody,” the ACLU filing argues. “They challenge their detention on statutory and constitutional grounds, on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated individuals.”

A HISTORY OF SIMILAR ISSUES

We’ve seen these issues before with the Farmville Detention Center. Last summer, the ACLU of Virginia had a similar case involving two men named German Fuentes and “Mr. Gonzalez”. Both had won their respective immigration cases and yet they were still sitting in the detention center months later. That case never made it to trial, as ICE officials acknowledged there was an issue and released both men. 

WHAT IS ‘WITHHOLDING OF REMOVAL’? 

So the legal argument behind this case involves something known as ‘withholding of removal’. When you go for an immigration hearing, a judge can rule in your favor in two different ways. 

The first is a deferral of removal. This means a judge has put in a deportation order, but tells the government not to enforce it right now. Now the American Immigration Council says a judge issues this, rather than the withholding mentioned above, to people who have a criminal record or could be considered some type of security risk due to other reasons determined by the court. Basically, yes, they’ve proven returning home would be dangerous. But the judge has some concerns about their stay here. This option doesn’t apply in the current case.

Second, they can grant you “withholding of removal” protection. That is what happened with the four men identified in this latest ACLU lawsuit.

Withholding of removal is similar to asylum. According to the American Immigration Council (AIC), a person under a “withholding of removal” order is protected from being deported to their home country. That person also receives the right to remain in the United States and work legally. But there is a catch. “An immigration judge (still) enters a deportation order and then tells the government they cannot execute that order,” AIC officials said in a statement on their website. While the person is protected from being deported to their own country, “the government is still allowed to deport that person to a different country, if the other country agrees to accept them,” the council explains.

This is what the ACLU is fighting against in the latest lawsuit. The government argues that they should be allowed to hold a person in custody, while immigration officials try to find another country willing to take him. But at what point should that process end? The ACLU lawsuit details a list of countries that the federal government reached out to, trying to get them to take the four men in question. Each country rejected the request. The ACLU argues at this point, those attempts to find a deportation partner need to end. 

“ICE’s half-hearted attempts to remove Petitioners to a random collection of unspecified alternative countries — to which they have no ties, and which have no policy or history of accepting non-citizen deportees — are speculative and futile,” the lawsuit argues. 

The group argues the continued detention of the four men violates both the Administrative Procedure Act and Due Process Clause. 

WHAT’S A CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT? 

So now we come to the changes in the latest lawsuit. In addition to the four “petitioners” mentioned in court documents, the ACLU wants to add others with similar stories. But the number of detainees involved, the ACLU argues, would be too many to file lawsuits for each one. Instead, it makes more sense to bring one class action lawsuit, with each detainee signing on as a client. Judge Nachmanoff agreed, making his order pretty broad, in terms of who could join. 

“All persons who, now or at any time in the future, are held in civil immigration detention within the area of responsibility of (Washington ICE) and who have a grant of asylum, INA withholding, or CAT relief from an Immigration Judge that is either final or pending ICE’s appeal,” the order said. 

The Washington ICE coverage area referenced includes Farmville and the rest of Virginia. The order also names the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the ACLU of Virginia and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild to serve as legal counsel. 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Now the ACLU will continue adding detainees to their lawsuit, which will go to a hearing later this year. If the judge agrees with their argument, all of the detainees mentioned in the lawsuit could be released. To be clear, no, even if the judge agrees, it doesn’t mean the Farmville Detention Center will be shut down. It also doesn’t mean all detainees at the facility would be released, just those referenced in the lawsuit. 

And no, Prince Edward County is not mentioned in the lawsuit and this will not have an impact on the county itself. Yes, earlier this year, Prince Edward supervisors signed an agreement, partnering with Abyon LLC in the operation of the detention center. But county officials have no say in who is detained or for how long.