Federal judge allows part of lawsuit against ICE to continue, dismisses claims against Clay County

IL file photo

Noncitizen detainees who allege the Clay County Jail is using U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding to operate as a “cash cow” can proceed with part of their lawsuit, a federal judge has ruled.

Chief Judge Tanya Pratt of the Indiana Southern District Court dismissed most of the claims for relief — including those against county defendants — but denied part of ICE’s motion to dismiss, ruling the detainees have standing, and the agency performance evaluation of the jail constituted a final agency action.

The detainees sued in April 2022, alleging Clay County officials unlawfully diverted funds required to care of ICE detainees at the jail to unrelated county expenses. The complaint also claimed detention standards were failing at the jail, and that county and ICE officials colluded in 2021 to make sure a second failing grade for the facility didn’t happen, as it would’ve ended their contract.

The complaint alleges the county “has spent hundreds of thousands of federal dollars on County expenses and discretionary expenditures that are unrelated to the care of Plaintiffs and others detained by ICE at the Jail,” including $83,000 for an air conditioner for the local courthouse.

“The County also gives its employees raises and bonuses using those funds, and it publicly proclaims to its residents that it profits from the Agreement, and that those profits allow the County to avoid raising taxes,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit claims the county spent $783,000 of the $1.4 million received from holding ICE detainees in 2020 on expenses outside of jail services, as reported by the Brazil Times.

The filing came shortly after the Clay County commissioners approved moving forward with a jail expansion project.

The complaint further claims facilities used by ICE must comply with Performance-Based National Detention Standards to continue operations. If an ICE detention center fails two consecutive inspections, the contract must be terminated, per the Annual DHS Appropriations Act cited by the plaintiffs.

The Clay County Jail failed an inspection in May 2021, with dozens of deficient components being recognized across almost 20 different detention standards. In a follow-up report, issues persisted but the facility passed its overall inspection.

The plaintiffs allege county and federal officials conspired to make sure a failing grade wasn’t given in the second inspection so the agreement between them would stay intact.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit in July 2022.

ICE argued that the detainees lacked standing because their alleged injuries aren’t redressable under the Administrative Procedure Act, and that its certification of the jail as compliant is unreviewable because it doesn’t challenge a final agency action. The agency also argued any alleged final agency action is an unreviewable discretionary enforcement decision.

Further, the county argued the detainees lacked standing.

The court agreed with Clay County, dismissing the detainees’ claims against the county, and it agreed with ICE’s argument about an unreviewable discretionary enforcement decision. However, the court disagreed with ICE’s argument that the detainees lack standing and that they aren’t challenging a final agency action.

In denying part of ICE’s motion, the court concluded there is a “substantial likelihood” that the relief the detainees requested would alleviate their harm because declaring the jail should have failed its follow-up evaluation would require ICE to stop detaining them and other noncitizens at the jail.

The court also concluded the most it can do is vacate and remand ICE’s decision, rather than saying what that decision should be.

“Plaintiffs interpret the APA too broadly,” Pratt’s states. “The statute only permits a court to determine whether an agency decision was adequately founded, not what the agency’s decision should have been.”

In disagreeing with ICE’s argument that the plaintiffs aren’t challenging a final agency action, the court cited the APA’s definition of a final agency action as “the whole or a part of an agency rule, order, license, sanction, relief, or the equivalent or denial thereof, or failure to act.”

ICE’s certification of the jail in its follow-up evaluation constituted a final agency action, the court ruled, in part because it had legal consequences, as payments to the jail are tied to the evaluations.

The court dismissed the detainees’ claims that ICE’s decision to continue providing federal funds to Clay County, despite knowing the county misuses those funds, is a violation of the agency’s duties. The court agreed with ICE that its decision is an unreviewable nonenforcement decision.

The court also dismissed the detainees’ claims that the county is violating their rights by continuing to misuse the federal funds. The court concluded the detainees did not establish themselves as third-party beneficiaries to the agreement. That’s in part because the detainees were only incidental beneficiaries and didn’t show that the contracting parties intended to directly benefit them, the order states.

The detainees argued that if their claims against the county were dismissed, then “no one will enforce” the obligations of the parties.

“The allegations against Clay County concerning the deplorable conditions of the Jail are indeed serious,” the order states. “The Court recognizes that each Defendant appears to have disclaimed responsibility for complying with and enforcing the Agreement and placed that responsibility entirely on the other Defendant. But this strategic blame-shifting does not leave Plaintiffs entirely without recourse.”

The order states opinions from other federal courts indicate the detainees may challenge a complete abdication of ICE’s responsibility to enforce applicable laws and regulations, and that they may challenge the constitutionality of the conditions of their confinement.

The case is Maribel Xirum, et al. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 1:22-cv-00801.

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