LOS ANGELES — Arrestees who say they were denied bail because immigration agents wanted them held sued the Los Angeles County sheriff Friday claiming they were illegally detained for weeks or months.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed the lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles challenging Sheriff Lee Baca's ability to detain arrestees solely on the basis of a request from the federal immigration agency, when the inmates 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 Immigration and Customs Enforcement had filed paperwork asking the Sheriff's Department to keep him in custody, 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 withdrew its request, known as an immigration detainer, or hold. "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."

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 but were detained because the department says it must honor the immigration holds, according to the ACLU.

ACLU staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella said the suit – which seeks 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 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.

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.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering the sheriff not to detain anyone solely on the basis of an immigration hold, and damages for plaintiffs who were unlawfully held. In the suit, the ACLU states the Sheriff's Department recently agreed to put forth a policy clarifying that inmates should be able to post bail even if they have an immigration detainer.

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 is 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 by immigration agents to hold 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.

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  • The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)

    California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.

  • The Worst: Arizona SB 1070

    The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)

  • Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87

    The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17

  • Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502

    This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>

  • A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497

    Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)

  • The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C

    Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010

  • The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56

    The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>