Law enforcement in Maryland is "unwittingly" being turned into a tool of federal immigration authorities by agreeing to hold people wanted by the Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU said Tuesday.
A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union examined the ways in which Maryland police and jails comply with "immigration detainers" issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask local authorities to hold people for up to 48 hours after they would otherwise be released.
The ACLU report questioned the value to public safety and the constitutionality of the requests, but an ICE spokeswoman said the agency sends out detainers only when it believes it has a reason to deport a person from the United States.
More than 2,000 people were held on the basis of such requests between 2010 and 2012 in the eight Maryland counties that responded to Public Information Act requests filed by the ACLU. The overwhelming majority of detainers were issued against Hispanic people, according to the organization.
In October, the Maryland attorney general's office issued an opinion emphasizing that the detainers are not mandatory — a position also held by federal authorities — and that local agencies have discretion in deciding how to respond to them.
But the ACLU said many departments comply with the requests as a matter of routine. The group is pushing for state legislation limiting the circumstances under which police and jails agree to hold someone.
"More and more jurisdictions across the country are refusing to act as surrogates in the current deportation frenzy," Sirine Shebaya, the ACLU attorney who wrote the report, said in a statement.
"The ACLU is calling on Maryland to join other states in deciding that complying with these requests is an inefficient use of our limited law enforcement resources and results only in ripping apart our communities."
ICE can send a detainer request for anyone who has been arrested in Maryland and who is suspected of violating immigration law.
A spokeswoman for ICE said such a detainer is issued only if the federal agency has a legal basis to take the target into custody and fits into one of the agency's priority groups, including violent criminals, gang members and fugitives.
Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County police, said the department generally takes a limited role in immigration matters but does agree to act on detainers.
"If we receive a detainer from ICE that's backed by a warrant, we would hold a person," Armacost said, "but not just on a request from an agent that has no legal backing."
Shebaya said some local police are effectively acting as an arm of federal immigration enforcement. The practice can damage public safety by making crime victims reluctant to contact authorities out of fear that they might face deportation proceedings, Shebaya said.
ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas said that in releasing people wanted by immigration authorities, police could end up setting free dangerous criminals.
"The federal government ... places detainers on individuals arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities," Navas said.
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