By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - Rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit on Friday against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, accusing it of unlawfully detaining immigrants at the behest of the federal government for days beyond when they should have been released.
The suit highlights the detention of a British filmmaker and legal immigrant, Duncan Roy, who spent 89 days in jail because of an erroneous federal immigration hold that left him unable to post bail, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The lawsuit is the latest effort by rights groups to turn California into a so-called sanctuary state that protects unauthorized immigrants. That is in stark contrast to states such as Arizona that are engaged in crackdowns on illegal immigration which have sparked fears of racial profiling.
An immigration hold is a request by the federal government that they would like someone to remain in custody so they can seek deportation.
"This massive unconstitutional detention is a symptom of the criminalization of immigrants, a dangerous trend that must be reversed," Jessica Karp, an attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network that was one of the groups involved in the suit, said in a statement.
In Roy's case, he was initially arrested on a misdemeanor extortion charge stemming from a falling-out with his ex-boyfriend, which resulted in a much longer stay behind bars than other people charged with similar crimes.
He said his extended jail stay could have exacerbated his prostate and colon cancer and seeks damages for his treatment.
Three Mexican immigrants and an Estonian who say they were unlawfully held were also party to the class action suit, filed on behalf of all current and future detainees held in a county jail for more than 48 hours solely for immigration holds.
Of the Los Angeles County jail population, around 14 percent - or roughly 2,100 people on any given day - are subject to Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds, according to the ACLU of Southern California, which was also involved in the lawsuit.
Those individuals are held in jail nearly three weeks longer than those without such holds, the group said.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Nicole Nishida, said the department was following federal law, and acting on behalf of federal immigration authorities.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency's cooperation with local law enforcement on immigration holds ensures that "potentially dangerous criminals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities".
Much of the rights groups' unease stems from an information-sharing program called Secure Communities, in which federal immigration officials and local law enforcement work together to deport illegal immigrants arrested for crimes.
The program, launched in 2008, helped the federal government deport a record of about 400,000 illegal immigrants last year.
Friday's legal action followed a failed effort by immigration rights advocates to pass a bill that would have shielded some illegal immigrants from federal status checks.
That bill would have prohibited local authorities from honoring federal immigration detention requests statewide unless the individuals involved were charged or convicted of a serious or violent felony.
California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that bill in late September. The author of the legislation, Democratic Assembly member Tom Ammiano, has said he would revise and reintroduce the bill in the next legislative session, which begins in January.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he wanted to institute a plan that would shield illegal immigrants arrested for low-level offenses from potential deportation by January 1. The county has no plans for a similar program.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)