WORTHINGTON - The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued a statement of interest in a civil lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union against Nobles County and its sheriff, Kent Wilkening.

In its motion filed Friday afternoon, the DOJ requests the court deny the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order, which, as of Tuesday afternoon, was scheduled to be considered Friday in Blue Earth County District Court in Mankato.

In its supporting argument for denial, the motion - which includes U.S. DOJ Civil Division Assistant Attorney Gen. Joseph H. Hunt as counsel - claims the Nobles County Jail’s practice of holding inmates at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was and is lawful, contrary to what the ACLU alleged as Wilkening overstepping his legal authority. The ACLU lawsuit was filed Aug. 16.

In its 38-page motion, the counsel identifies the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit as “foreign nationals who are subject to ICE detainers and administrative warrants.” They include Rodrigo Esparza, Maria de Jesus de Pineda, Timoteo Martin-Morales and Oscar Basavez Conseco.

A detainer, the motion explains, asks local law enforcement to assist federal immigration enforcement efforts in two ways. The first is to notify ICE prior to releasing an individual for whom there is probable cause to believe they are removable from the country, and by briefly maintaining custody of that person. The motion describes “briefly” as up to 48 hours beyond when the alien would otherwise be released. This practice is to allow ICE to take custody in a safe and orderly way, the U.S. DOJ’s motion states.

“Without such cooperation, removable aliens, including individuals who have committed crimes, would be released into local communities, where it is harder and more dangerous for ICE to take custody of them and where they may commit more crimes,” the statement cites.

When this process occurs - through an active intergovernmental services agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and Nobles County - the detainee is continuously confined at the Nobles County Jail, although the detaining agency is transferred from the county to DHS, the motion states.  

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution allow localities to perform these practices, the DOJ’s motion claims.

According to Nobles County inmate release data provided by the jail, three of the four plaintiffs were released from Nobles County Jail custody to another authority. The plaintiffs released to another authority include: Esparza, Aug. 13; de Pineda, Feb. 27; and Conseco, Aug. 17. Morales - who the ACLU claims was dissuaded by jail staff from posting bail due to being subjected to an ICE hold - was released after posting bail on Aug. 24, the jail reports.

Some of the plaintiffs’ criminal cases were resolved, while disposition on others is still pending.