ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Nobles County Detention Policy

October 17, 2018 11:39 AM

A rural southwestern Minnesota county finds itself embroiled in the national immigration debate, pitting a sheriff's detention practices against foreign-born residents who claim their civil rights have been violated.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is suing Nobles County and its sheriff, Kent Wilkening, accusing him of exceeding his authority by unlawfully holding people suspected of violating immigration law.


The county and Wilkening deny any wrong-doing and say they are merely following a long-time detention contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Nobles County, about 175 miles from the Twin Cities, has become an economic magnet for foreign-born persons seeking jobs in the meat-packing and agricultural industries that dominate the region. About 21,000 people live in the county and one in five were born outside the U.S., according to census figures.

Wilkening, who declined multiple interview requests, has made it clear that he believes the purpose of the ACLU's lawsuit is to make it difficult for local law enforcement to work with ICE agents.

His attorney released this statement: "This case is identical to a flurry of cases filed by the ACLU throughout the country to use our district courts to force counties to become sanctuary counties, rather than allowing local governments and their citizens to make those decisions for themselves ... The County is not making arrests on ICE's behalf."

The Plaintiffs

The ACLU is representing four named plaintiffs who are the first to be included in a class-action lawsuit that is being heard in Blue Earth County.

One of those is Maria de Pineda, a 31-year-old mother of three who says she fled her native Honduras due to fear of gangs and being a victim of domestic violence. She has lived in Worthington, the county seat, for several years.

"We came to this country to work, not to take jobs away from anyone," de Pineda said. She currently has a permit to work and is taking steps towards becoming a permanent resident, but there was a time she was working without documents.

Last February, Worthington police officers arrested de Pineda for identity theft and forgery. She said she is regretful.

"I never would have wanted to do that, use another name, but the situation forced me. I would not ask for help. I don't want government assistance. I have two hands to work ... to help my children succeed," de Pineda said.

Officers booked de Pineda into the Nobles County jail, under the sheriff's custody. De Pineda's family paid her bond four days later, but instead of being freed, she says she remained behind bars because ICE agents had requested she be detained for their review.

The ACLU's lead attorney on the lawsuit, Ian Bratlie, says Nobles County unlawfully detained de Pineda for 17 days.

"She had done everything the courts asked of her and her rights were still violated," Bratlie said.

As a result of the ICE hold, de Pineda says she missed her criminal court date and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest while she remained behind bars.

An immigration judge in Minneapolis ordered de Pineda's release in early March but law enforcement officers then arrested de Pineda on her outstanding warrant.

De Pineda spent three more days in state custody until she was released, spending a total of 24 days in jail.

She pleaded guilty to gross misdemeanor identity theft in August and is on probation for the next two years.

However, de Pineda says her life will never be the same because of what happened at the Nobles County jail.

"It is trauma. What they have done. Psychologically. Not just to me, but to my children," de Pineda said.

The Contract

Nobles County and ICE have an Intergovernmental Service Agreement dating back 16 years.

Under the terms of the contract, ICE pays the county $89.69 a day for each person being held under federal custody – commonly referred to as an "ICE hold."     

Jail records show Nobles County held 269 people for ICE in the first three months of this year, totaling 18 percent of all inmates during that time.

Since January 2017, ICE has paid the county more than $772,581 for housing detainees.

ICE Payments to the Nobles County Sheriff's Office by Month:

In court filings, Wilkening says that "cooperation with ICE is critical to protecting Nobles County citizens from illegal activities by aliens."

The county also says its cooperation with ICE detainer requests does not violate the Fourth Amendment – which protects people from unreasonable searches or seizures – or state constitutions.

To buttress its case, the ACLU's cites the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that says state officials cannot enforce federal immigration laws.

"Being in the country without permission is not a crime and it's not something that a state law enforcement officer has any authority to make an arrest over," Bratlie said.

Minnesota Counties with Intergovernmental Service Agreements:

Previous Lawsuit

The Nobles County Sheriff's office has been down this legal road before. In 2015, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a suit against the county for its detention practices.

The ACLU argued the county unlawfully held Jose Orellana for 10 days on an immigration detainer after he was arrested for a DWI.

In 2017, the ACLU and the county reached a settlement of $17,500 and the county agreed to amend its policy on ICE holds.

At the time, Wilkening agreed not to hold people for immigration unless they're charged with a federal crime, have a warrant out for their arrest or have an order for removal.

'Next Steps'

The ACLU and Nobles County are now awaiting Blue Earth County judge Gregory Anderson to rule on a temporary restraining order.

It would prohibit Wilkening from what the ACLU calls the "unlawful practice of arresting and detaining" people for civil immigration violations, according to court transcripts.

Anderson took the motion under advisement last month and a ruling is expected within 90 days.


Matt Belanger & Ana Lastra

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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