Tens of thousands of inmates who should have been eligible for release from sheriff's custody allegedly remain detained for days or even months because of immigration-related holds. Such is the claim made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, which is now filing a federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

The ACLU said it will file the federal lawsuit Friday challenging Sheriff Baca's ability to detain arrestees solely on the basis of an immigration hold when they are eligible for bail or other forms of release.

Plaintiff Duncan Roy — a British film director — said he was held in jail for nearly three months because of a hold filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even though he tried multiple times to post bail.

"The sheriff says, he's on an ICE hold, and the ICE people say, well, he's got to make bond," said Roy, who was eventually released after ICE removed the immigration detainer. "They keep you in this limbo where each is blaming the other organization, but basically they're colluding with each other to keep you there."

They keep you in this limbo where each is blaming the other organization, but basically they're colluding with each other to keep you there.

- Plaintiff Duncan Roy, a British film director

Roy, who later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor extortion charge, is one of several named plaintiffs among tens of thousands of inmates who should have been eligible for release from sheriff's custody but have been detained because of ICE holds, according to the ACLU.

ACLU staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella said the suit — which will seek class-action status — challenges the validity of immigration detainers, which have been increasingly used in jails across the country under the federal government's flagship immigration enforcement program.

"There has to be authority for them to actually deprive a person of liberty, and we're saying there isn't based on state and federal law," Pasquarella said.

Inmates should be allowed to leave the sheriff department's custody if they post bail or qualify for release, then federal immigration authorities could seek to take them into custody if they so choose, immigrant advocates said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said the department may hold people at the request of federal immigration authorities.

"If ICE tells us there's a hold, we're only doing what they wish," Nishida said, adding that the detainers are usually placed for 48 hours but could go longer depending on the case.

The federal government's Secure Communities program lets immigration agents check arrestees' fingerprints against homeland security records to determine if someone might be in the country illegally.

The program has been touted by ICE as a crime-fighting tool but reviled by many who say it discourages immigrants from reporting crime and erodes their trust in police. Amid growing opposition, a number of law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, have announced plans to stop honoring requests for immigration holds for people accused only of minor crimes.

In the past four years, immigration agents have removed more than 220,000 people from the country under the program. Roughly 12 percent of them came from Los Angeles County, according to federal government statistics.

ICE said in a statement that the agency uses detainers to ensure that potentially dangerous criminals are not released from jails. On its website, the agency says that if immigration agents fail to take custody of an inmate after 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, local law enforcement agencies are required to release the inmate.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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