Neville Brooks, born in Jamaica, became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2017. He is a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, a frontline worker in the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Aug. 11, 2020, he was arrested in Ocala, Florida on a misdemeanor charge that was later dropped. He has never been convicted of a crime.
Brooks should have been released from Marion County Jail the next day, Aug. 12, after paying his $100 bond. Instead, he was kept in the dangerously crowded jail until Aug. 13. Five days later, he was diagnosed with Covid and bilateral pneumonia in the hospital.
Why was Brooks kept in jail? Because he was foreign-born, Marion County Sheriff officials decided to turn him over to authorities at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. But Brooks has a green card and there was no reason to detain him for ICE. In fact, ICE never even asked Marion County to hold Brooks (for instance, by issuing a “detainer request'').
Brooks feared he might be deported and separated from his family in Florida. On top of that, as a medical worker, he knew that the crowded conditions and lack of protective measures put him at risk to Covid. He also suffers from high blood pressure and did not have his medications with him.
“My blood pressure went through the roof,” he says. “It was ridiculous. No one even inquired about my immigration status."
Even without asking, it should have been obvious to the Sheriff’s Office that he had lawful immigration status. Brooks carries a valid Florida Class “A” Commercial Driver’s License, which can only be issued to U.S. citizens and other persons legally in the state. But they held him anyway, even though immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and no ICE officer expressed interest in holding Brooks.
According to county records, at approximately 8:10 P.M. on Aug. 12, a Sheriff’s Office employee emailed the ICE office in Orlando, stating that Brooks had posted bond and was ready for ICE.
An hour later, an ICE officer responded, copying five sheriff’s officials, stating he could find no record of an ICE detainer request for Brooks. In other words, Marion County knew ICE had not even asked to hold Brooks.
Despite receiving that notice, the Sheriff’s Office held Brooks overnight, in a room filled with other men sleeping in close quarters in bunk beds, putting him at further risk to Covid. He wasn’t released until 8:22 a.m the next day.
Brooks’ eventual bout with Covid led to hospital bills and other medical costs, and caused him to lose income.
His prolonged detention is the product of a unilateral policy and practice adopted illegally by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. It dictates that anyone arrested who is born outside of the U.S.—regardless of their citizenship or immigration status—must be referred to ICE and may be held for hours or longer until it is clear that ICE will not take them into custody. This is unconstitutional.
Brooks is suing Marion County Sheriff William “Billy” Woods in U.S. District Court, as well as a number of other jail employees. He is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder of Tampa.
Sheriff's deputies did not have probable cause to continue detaining Brooks, which violated his Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. Their actions also violated the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits discriminatory treatment of a person based on their national origin.
The Sheriff’s policy also ignores the demographic realities of Florida. In Florida, 2.6 million U.S. citizens and 1.3 million legal residents were born abroad. According to Marion County records, from April 2018 to August 2020, at least 80 foreign-born U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were referred to ICE by the county due to its unlawful foreign-born referral policy.
Being foreign-born is not a crime and Marion County authorities must stop making it so. Beyond that, the county’s policy and resulting constitutional violations demonstrate what happens when local officials involve themselves in immigration enforcement. The county should end its entire involvement in the Warrant Service Officer program, which encourages the entanglement of local law enforcement agencies in immigration matters outside their expertise. It is the latest iteration of the 287(g) program, a too often abused tool of discrimination and cruelty. Not only Marion but other Florida counties should terminate their participation in it.
Amien Kacou is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, specializing in immigration issues.