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Lawsuit challenges immigration jail policy
Attorney: Legal resident spent months behind bars over misdemeanor charge
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A Gainesville attorney claims his client, a legal, permanent U.S. resident, faced an immigration hold for months in the Hall County Jail.

Attorney Arturo Corso filed a habeas corpus petition Sept. 22 in the names of Nicolas Montalvan Ceballos and Jose Santos Delgado, two men charged with misdemeanors and facing 287(g) immigration holds.

A habeas corpus petition challenges the incarceration of an inmate or prisoner.

The 287(g) program is a federal initiative that trains local law enforcement officers in identifying undocumented persons. The Hall County Detention Center entered the program in 2007.

“When the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Agents act upon (the sheriff’s) 287(g) hold, they act to forcibly remove an accused person from the jurisdiction of the courts where the criminal complaint is still pending,” according to the petition.

The civil action names Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch and Solicitor Stephanie Woodard.

Corso said Delgado, 26, was wrongly accused of simple battery under the Family Violence Act. Delgado was arrested June 13 and is a legal permanent resident, Corso said.

After weeks, the prosecutors informed Corso of an investigation into a felony-level crime, which Delgado also denied. Corso claimed he has provided affidavits and other statements to prosecutors supporting his client’s lack of involvement in either situation.

“The prosecutor wants my client’s bond reduced, so that he can get out of jail ... and right into the waiting mouth of the 287(g) immigration officers,” Corso said.

Speaking generally on cases prior to adjudication, Woodard said her office looks to review cases frequently in which a prohibitive bond may have been set.

“Both Sheriff Couch and my office work to try and minimize the time that people are held pre-adjudication to keep that from being a financial burden to the taxpayers, because incarceration should be used as punishment after adjudication,” she said.

Citing the ongoing lawsuit, Couch declined to comment specifically on the 287(g) program.

“While this has been a successful program for many years, I am unable to make any additional comment regarding the 287(g) program due to the pending litigation,” Couch said in a statement. “I look forward to being able to address this program further once the litigation has been settled.”

Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Nicole Bailes directed questions about the 287(g) program to ICE public information officer Bryan Cox. He wrote in an email he couldn’t discuss any specifics of the program because of the lawsuit.

A month after filing the habeas corpus petition, Delgado was released Oct. 20.

“Someone, magically, called the sheriff’s office and got the 287(g) hold lifted,” Corso said, adding he was unsure how the hold was lifted.

Carolina Antonini, an Atlanta-based immigration attorney, said she has helped a number of clients who had legal status but have faced such immigration holds.

“It happens sufficiently in my practice that makes me think it happens enough to be concerned about it,” Antonini said.

Woodard claimed no one on the state level could be involved because the hold is handled on a federal level.

“None of the state actors interact with the federal decisions,” Woodard said.

Ceballos, however, has already been deported, Corso said.

“(Ceballos) had just been in jail for so long, I guess three months, four months, he became completely exasperated and depressed,” he said, saying he was unsure of Ceballos’ legal status when charged. “He just couldn’t wait anymore for his day in court even though he pled not guilty and he wanted to have a trial on his charges.”

Corso said the alleged result is a legal “dead zone,” where there is no judicial review for police activity.

“Before any judge ever gets to hear whether the arrest is valid or whether the accusation has any merit, the 287(g) program comes down like the sword of Damocles and you get the express train to deportation,” he said.

Antonini said often her clients will face ICE detention in one of two South Georgia cities, Lumpkin and Ocilla, if they are detained in Georgia. As a result, some of her clients have been unable to return to face charges in a timely manner.

“I’ve had many people who unfortunately were detained and removed from the county, were not able to face the charges and then would come out of the county with an order of arrest,” Antonini said.

In her experience, Woodard said the two issues — preadjudication concerns and deportation concerns — are often handled together in short succession.

“The majority of time, attorneys address both situations simultaneously, both reducing bond and releasing here and dealing with the deportation status in a separate court in the appropriate jurisdiction,” Woodard said.

Part of the issue with legal residents having immigration holds may have to do with what questions are asked during booking procedures, Corso said.

“‘Were you born in this country?’ is not the end-all be-all of whether you are an American citizen or not,” he said, himself born in Heidelberg, Germany, to a father in the military.

In November 2014, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memorandum setting priorities for deportation proceedings. “Priority 1” is set for those suspected of posing a threat to national security and people convicted of committing street gang activity.

“If you get pulled over because one of the two light bulbs on your license plate is out, the president has said that we’re not going to make that person’s deportation a priority, especially if they’re married to a U.S. citizen or have U.S. citizen children,” Corso said.

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