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Nobles sheriff (still) can't hold people in jail for ICE

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening tried to overturn a restraining order keeping him from detaining undocumented immigrants for ICE. It didn't work.

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening tried to overturn a restraining order keeping him from detaining undocumented immigrants for ICE. It didn't work. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening hasn’t given up on the idea that he can hold people in jail after they’ve posted bond. He argues he can, specifically because Immigration Customs Enforcement—better known as ICE—wants him to.

It’s a maneuver attempted all over the country, commonly called an “ICE hold.” Now it’s on trial in Minnesota, thanks to a class-action lawsuit filed in Blue Earth County by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several detainees last year.

The suit includes at least a dozen people who were held in Nobles County for days, even weeks after they posted bond or their cases were dismissed. Some, like plaintiff Rodrigo Esparza, say they weren’t even undocumented. ICE just suspected they might have been.

It’s already not looking too good for Wilkening. A few months after the plaintiffs filed, District Court Judge Gregory Anderson preemptively slapped him with a restraining order requiring him to release any ICE-held prisoners still incarcerated when their sentences were up. He said there was “substantial likelihood” the ACLU was going to come out on top once the case went to trial, so there was little point in forcing anyone to languish in jail in the meantime.

Still, Wilkening wasn’t going down without a fight. He took to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, hoping to have the restraining order reversed. His attorney previously told KSTP that the county was just following the its age-old contract with ICE, and that the ACLU’s suit was an attempt to “force counties to become sanctuary cities.”

On Monday, Judge Diane Bratvold came to a decision: one big nope.

There’s “no Minnesota statute,” she wrote, that “explicitly authorizes state and local officers to seize an individual for an immigration violation with or without a warrant.” The court also pointed to a lack of training among local law enforcement to essentially act as federal immigration officials on ICE’s behalf.

Wilkening didn’t respond to requests for comment, but KSTP received a statement on behalf of him and the county on Monday.

“Prior to this decision, no court had addressed whether Minnesota statutes allowed a county to honor an ICE arrest warrant, similar to how it handles any other warrant,” it said. “While this decision is not the result the county sought, it provides guidance on dealing with similar warrants going forward.”

It’s still a while yet before this case actually goes to trial, but it’s already been a long wait for some. Plaintiff Maria de Jesus de Pineda had yet another uncomfortable brush with police in December—taken to jail even after the warrant for her arrest was thrown out. She says she and her family “live in fear” she could end up in jail for little more than a misunderstanding, and that the county will try to keep her there.

“You can’t even imagine the psychological damage this has done,” she told the ACLU earlier this year.

But: “What happened to me, it could happen to hundreds of people here if I don’t say anything.”