A U.S. citizen who said he was threatened with deportation while detained in jail has settled a claim with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Diego Rojas, 18, was arrested on suspicion of burglary last May and taken to Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
His family posted bail. But instead of being released, Rojas said, he was questioned about his immigration status by sheriff's deputies trained by immigration agents under a controversial federal program known as 287(g).
The program places Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials inside jails and trains jail employees to investigate whether inmates are in the country illegally. Many are often turned over to federal authorities upon their release.
Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the presence of ICE agents in county jails has led to repeated rights violations, such as in the case of her client, Rojas.
“It's racial profiling,” she said. “They question people ... based on people's surnames, whether or not they speak English and how they look.”
In a claim filed in November against the county by the ACLU and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Rojas said deputies threatened to have him deported if he did not “confess” to being born in Mexico.
He said he was released hours later, only after his sister provided deputies a copy of his U.S. birth certificate.
Under the terms of the settlement, the county agreed to pay Rojas $6,000 for detaining him past his release date.
Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said the way Rojas’ case was handled was not typical.
“While it is unfortunate that Mr. Rojas was over-detained for several hours due to insufficient documentation … this is a rarity,” Nishida said.
She said jail officials changed the way they work with immigration agents last year after a federal judge found an Oregon county liable for damages because it held an inmate beyond her release date so she could be transferred into ICE custody.
The Sheriff’s Department no longer honors requests from ICE to hold inmates beyond their release date, Nishida said. ICE agents continue to work inside the jails.
The county’s participation in the 287(g) program has been fiercely contested, with immigrant advocates saying that it violates the rights of jail inmates and erodes trust in law enforcement among immigrant communities.
The progam’s days may be numbered, with both new members of the Board of Supervisors saying they hope to end it.
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl have both come out against the program, with Kuehl saying Thursday, “There’s no reason why the county should be engaged with the federal government in the deportation of immigrants.”
The board’s two most conservative members, Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich, have supported the program in the past, saying that it helps identify serious criminals who do not have permission to be in the country.
That means a decision over its future may come down to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who last fall abstained in a vote to continue the county’s contract with ICE, and who did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Across the country, state and local governments have been reconsidering their relationship with federal immigration officials.
The number of law enforcement jurisdictions participating in 287(g) has decreased from 75 to 35 in recent years, according to ICE. The only other jurisdiction in California to participate in the program is Orange County.
Follow Kate Linthicum at @katelinthicum