Last week, the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP filed a lawsuit against Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay for working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to illegally jail and nearly deport a U.S. citizen.
Peter Sean Brown, a Keys resident born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, turned himself in to his local jail for violating his probation after testing positive for marijuana. He expected to be released once his local charge was resolved. Instead, the Sheriff’s office held him on an ICE detainer. ICE had mistakenly identified him as a deportable citizen of Jamaica — a country to which he has no tie, save for a random visit on a cruise years ago.
For three weeks, Mr. Brown took every conceivable step to inform his jailer of its mistake. His protests were met with indifference, even cruelty. Jail staff mocked him by telling him in a Jamaican accent that everything was “gonna be alright,” and by singing him the theme song to the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
They dismissed a phone call from his employer, who attested to his U.S. citizenship and even ignored their own internal records, which confirmed the fact.
One jail official told Mr. Brown, “It is not up to us to determine the validity of the ICE hold. That is between you, your attorney and ICE.” But calling ICE did not help. And no one would listen — not even the ICE agents who eventually came to transfer him to Krome Detention Center — until Mr. Brown, days from being deported, was finally able to persuade one ICE officer in Miami to look at his birth certificate. When ICE realized Mr. Brown was a U.S. citizen, it arranged for his release, confiscated all the documents regarding his impending deportation, and left him stranded in Miami.
Mr. Brown’s traumatic experience was not an isolated incident. In recent years, hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens have been held on ICE detainers — including Garland Creedle, the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last year in Miami. ICE sends detainers to local officials asking them not to release individuals in their custody to give the agency 48 hours to arrest them on suspicion of being deportable, even if they are due for release on local charges. ICE frequently issues these detainers without probable cause.
Federal courts have found local officials independently liable when they grant ICE’s detainer requests — a principle reaffirmed just last month by the judge in Mr. Creedle’s case.
But ICE keeps trying to get Florida localities to sign up. Last January, ICE and 17 Florida Sheriffs led by Bob Gualtieri announced their intent to sign Basic Ordering Agreements (“BOAs”), under which sheriffs would receive $50 when they choose to re-arrest an individual on an ICE detainer, on the false promise that they could evade legal exposure.
With BOAs, sheriffs try to have it both ways: to exercise ICE’s arrest powers upon request, without having any of ICE’s responsibility to ensure the legality of each arrest. This arrangement facilitated the violation of our client’s civil rights and threatens the civil rights of countless Floridians.
Mr. Brown’s terrifying ordeal should make Florida sheriffs reconsider their collaboration with ICE. The Trump administration has repeatedly shown its willingness to trample legal standards in matters of immigration. Local officials should steer clear of such malicious efforts or face the legal consequences.
Amien Kacou is an immigration staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida.