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Qualified immunity and the violation of immigrant's civil rights

Could your national origin and a foreign-sounding last name leave you exposed to a civil rights violation that you can do nothing about?

It seems like someone should be held accountable when a United States citizen is illegally detained not just once, but twice, over the course of five years. Unfortunately for one Rhode Island resident, that's not the case.

The judge hearing her case agreed her civil rights had been violated and that there was a "unilateral refusal to take responsibility for the fact that a United States citizen lost her liberty" by both the state and federal government.

The woman has been a U.S. citizen since 1995. After being arrested on an unrelated charge in 2009, she was placed under an immigration detainer as a deportable alien. Although she offered to show officials her naturalization certificate and passport, her protests were ignored. A similar incident occurred in 2004.

While the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on her behalf for the violation of her civil rights, the judge stated that the Department of Corrections and its director were both protected by qualified immunity from damage claims. That means that there is no way for her to recover any losses from her unlawful detention.

In this heightened age of sensitivity to immigration issues, it's very possible that more cases like these will be seen, and that more public officials will try to claim that qualified immunity protects them from misconduct.

Qualified immunity generally acts as a shield for public officials — like police officers — from civil liability. The only way to overcome qualified immunity is to show that the defendants acted in a willful, unreasonable manner. Merely acting without due care or being negligent isn't enough to overcome the qualified immunity that officials enjoy during the performance of their job duties.

These days, it may be advantageous to keep documentation of your citizenship status with you at all times if you happen to have a foreign-sounding last name, especially if you are a naturalized citizen.

If, for any reason, you've lost some of your paperwork over the years, you may want to start the process of obtaining copies of the records as soon as possible. It may also be wise to keep the business card of an immigration attorney in your wallet or purse, just in case you ever need assistance under similar circumstances.

Source: Providence Journal, "Providence woman unlawfully detained as 'deportable alien,' court rules," Karen Lee Ziner, Jan. 24, 2017

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