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Woman sues officials over immigration arrest in Maryland

By Mariano Castillo
  • Plaintiff: Frederick County, Maryland, deputies spotted her sitting on a curb eating lunch
  • Deputies had no probable cause to question her, complaint states
  • The suit also names federal officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Law limits questioning on immigration status to instances of a crime being committed

(CNN) -- A Salvadoran immigrant, backed by two immigrants' rights organizations, is suing the sheriff's office in Frederick County, Maryland, and federal immigration officials, claiming that she was unconstitutionally interrogated and detained last year because of her Hispanic ethnicity.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, Roxana Orellana Santos says that two Frederick County deputies improperly questioned her about her immigration status after they spotted her sitting on a curb, eating lunch. She is seeking compensatory damages of at least $1 million, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also names federal officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement as defendants.

According to the complaint, the deputies had no probable cause to question Orellana Santos, who didn't speak much English and could not communicate well with the officers, about her immigrant status. She was detained for five weeks without charges before being released, the court document states. The incident happened in on October 7 of last year; she was held by federal immigration authorities who released her on humanitarian grounds on November 13, 2008.

"Despite having committed no criminal offense under Maryland law, Ms. Orellana Santos was detained, taken into custody and subsequently transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," the complaint alleges.

Repeated calls for comment to the Frederick County Sheriff's Office were not immediately returned.

Her detention by immigration authorities suggests that Orellana Santos possibly was held for being in the country illegally, but her attorney, John C. Hayes, would not confirm her immigration status.

"We're not commenting on that at all," Hayes told CNN.

Orellana Santos had given the deputies a Salvadoran national identification card in hopes of appeasing the officers, Hayes said.

Despite the language barrier between Orellana Santos and the deputies, the officers arrested her, according to the complaint.

At issue is a nationwide federal agreement with local law enforcement agencies that allows trained local officers to enforce federal immigration laws in certain instances.

Under the arrangement, known as a 287(g) agreement, local officers are limited to asking about immigration status to instances where a crime is being committed. But in Orellana Santos' case, the officers had no reason to arrest her, the complaint states.

Furthermore, the two deputies who arrested her were not trained or certified in the proper procedures, as stipulated in the agreement, court documents say.

In addition to attorney Hayes, two immigrants' rights groups, -- CASA de Maryland and LatinoJustice PRLDEF -- are representing Orellana Santos.

While the current case is about a single incident, Jose Perez, an attorney for LatinoJustice, told CNN that it draws attention to the "misguided efforts" of 287(g) agreements.

"This evidence shows all the reasons why this program is wrong," Perez said.

Greg Weeks, associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, who has followed the debate over the use of 285(g), said there's a disconnect between local and federal authorities that makes the arrangement fail.

Federal authorities devised the partnerships as a way to deport criminals who were in the country illegally, freeing up prison space and court resources, Weeks told CNN.

But at the local level, the goal of law enforcement in some places is to expel undocumented immigrants, period, he said.

The result is an environment where local officials find themselves profiling potential illegal immigrants, creating a climate of fear among the Latino population, Weeks said.

"What this case shows is that people are being picked up for any reason," Weeks said. "There is not supposed to be any profiling at all."

Perez said that profiling is what happened in the case of Orellana Santos.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We're going to see more as more people come forward."

The lawsuit is not the first time the 287(g) agreements have been in the spotlight.

Last month, federal authorities renewed such an agreement with Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Jose Arpaio, but with limitations.

Under the umbrella of the agreement, Arpaio's deputies conducted street-level enforcement of immigration laws that typically fall to federal officers. The sheriff also checked the immigration status of everyone booked into his jail. Arpaio's strategy was scrutinized by critics who accused the sheriff's office of racial profiling.

The new agreement allowed for the continuation of the jailhouse checks, but put an end to the street stops.