An inconsistent federal policy on holding illegal immigrants in jail for 48 hours will result in a very expensive legal bill for Lehigh County.

County officials feel they were abandoned by the federal government after they followed its regulations and held a suspected illegal alien in Lehigh County Prison for a weekend six years ago.

Now the county faces a possible six-figure legal settlement for the federal court case it lost in March.

On Wednesday night, county commissioners voted to make changes to the way county prisoners are held for, and released to, federal immigration authorities.

“It appears that Lehigh County will go down in history as a precedent-setting legal case, which we’ve lost as a result of our detaining an individual who was wrongly thought to be an undocumented resident,” said Commissioner David Jones.

Jones explained the essence of the case is that the county has been held liable for holding a man in custody at the federal government’s request.

Jones co-sponsored a resolution implementing policy changes aimed at preventing that from happening again. Despite some initial reluctance by a couple of commissioners, the resolution passed unanimously.

What happened was explained to county commissioners by Ed Sweeney, the county’s director of corrections.

In 2008, a New Jersey resident named Ernesto Galarza was held in Lehigh County Prison because a federal immigration detainer had been filed on him.

At that time, holding a suspect under such a detainer was considered mandatory across the country, stressed Sweeney.

He said those detainers state suspected illegal aliens arrested for crimes shall be detained for 48 hours.

Sweeney said the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency – known as ICE – was notified of the man’s arrest.

“We kept someone from Friday until Monday, even though he posted bail on Friday,” explained Sweeney. “We honored the detainer.”

Galarza had been arrested on a drug charge by Allentown police, who suspected he was an illegal alien.

“Based on that, they sent us a detainer document, ordering us to hold him for 48 hours,” said Assistant County Solicitor Tom Caffrey, who handled the county’s legal case.

“His co-defendants actually were illegal aliens, who also had detainers on them,” said Sweeney.

That Monday, said Sweeney, officials from ICE interviewed the suspect at the jail and released him “because, as it turns out, it was a mistake on their part. He actually was born in this country.”

He said the American Civil Liberties Union – ACLU – filed a suit on the man’s behalf against ICE, Allentown and the county.

The issue was whether the county prison was required to honor the immigration detainers.

“At the federal district court level, we actually prevailed,” said Sweeney, later adding the case was heard in 2012.

He explained that judge agreed there is an expectation that counties are required to honor the detainers.

He explained the city and ICE did not get off because both had identified the individual as “an illegal.” He said the city and ICE settled that case.

Case appealed

Sweeney said the ACLU “took us as the only remaining defendant” and appealed that judge’s decision to the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

“After several hearings and oral argument presented on our part, to our surprise, we lost.”