Accused immigrant’s case a political hot potato in RI

A matter of state policy or terrible error?

Posted 2/27/24

It was a rare, stinging rebuke of state officials by an enforcement wing of the federal government.

Then the Ocean State’s Attorney General weighed in, reddening the handprint left behind …

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Accused immigrant’s case a political hot potato in RI

A matter of state policy or terrible error?


It was a rare, stinging rebuke of state officials by an enforcement wing of the federal government.

Then the Ocean State’s Attorney General weighed in, reddening the handprint left behind by the immigration enforcement arm slap.

An undocumented immigrant accused of child molestation was released by the courts despite a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer. Was this a matter of policy or a terrible error? Was this an example of the process working, or breaking down?

On Tuesday, ICE responded. They’re not sorry and they stand by their initial criticism, the spark that ignited the discussion.

Passing The Blame

The incident, and subsequent barbs exchanged, were local manifestations of a  political rift — not just between left and right, but within (and outside) the Democratic party, on both a state and national stage.

Rhode Island’s governor and the state’s AG are both Democrats (though likely gubernatorial competitors next election cycle). The federal immigration officials were all working under a Democratic U.S. President (though Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was impeached by the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives last week).

The governor refused to comment on the case, at first. His staff refused to go on the record despite several requests for comment by Beacon Communications. Questions were deferred to the Department of Corrections (DOC), which confirmed the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston still follow a 2014 directive by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee, directing the DOC to no longer honor federal immigration detainers without a warrant.

And then the governor’s staff said they dug deeper. They decided to hit back, emailing their findings to members of the media.

“In a recent WPRI story, the Attorney General and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) criticize the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Rhode Island Division of Sheriffs for ‘ignoring’ an ICE request to detain Manuel Garcia Dela Cruz, a man accused of child molestation,” wrote Olivia DaRocha, Press Secretary for Gov. Daniel J. McKee.

The story, which included statements by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, was broken by a Beacon Communications report (publisher of the Johnston Sun Rise, Cranston Herald and Warwick Beacon), “Feds scold state over undocumented immigrant’s release (posted at 1:29 p.m., Feb. 20).” WPRI’s reporting followed soon after, and included similar comments from Neronha.

“The Attorney General asserts that Garcia Dela Cruz’s release ‘should not have happened and there should be a review by the DOC and [the Sheriffs] of why it did,’” DaRocha wrote. McKee’s press secretary then asserts that “the Governor reviewed ICE’s accusation with DOC and the Sheriffs and has found it to be false.”

Undocumented Documented

McKee’s office provided a Rhode Island Division of Sheriffs Incident Report dated April 26, 2023. The report, written by Deputy Keith Connelly, documents a phone call received from the District Court bail room informing the Sheriffs Department that Dela Cruz had posted $50,000 surety bail, but had an ICE 247 Detainer “lodged at the prison.”

“I called ICE and spoke to Agent Ted Donaghan and explained to him that Garcia Dela Cruz had posted bail on his sixth division hold and we would be releasing him, and he has a 247 detainer,” Connelly wrote.

An ICE 247 detainer informs local authorities that they have “an alien subject to removal from the United States” in custody. A “247 detainer” can be issued for multiple reasons, including felony charges filed against an inmate. The form instructs local authorities to “maintain custody of alien for a period not to exceed 48 hours” (written in all capital letters at the top of the form).

“Agent Donaghan explained to me that his department was short staffed and they would not be able to pick him up,” Connelly wrote. “I then called Captain Rao at records and ID and let him know that ICE would not be picking him up due to staffing shortages. Captain Rao told me that we could release Garcia Dela Cruz from the courthouse, and he did not have to return to the prison … Inmate Dela Cruz was released by Sgt. Clays at approximately 11:20 a.m. at the district court bail room.”

DaRocha said state officials’ hands were tied.

“Far from ‘ignoring’ ICE’s detainer, the Division of Sheriffs notified ICE … that Mr. Garcia Dela Cruz had posted bail and would soon be released by the Rhode Island District Court,” she wrote Friday. “The responding ICE agent said that ICE was short staffed and would not be able to pick up (Dela Cruz). The Sheriffs’ Division had no choice but to honor the Court’s bail order and release (Dela Cruz) from its custody.”

The Background

When U.S. Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Boston announced the Feb. 6 arrest of a “Guatemalan national charged with child sexual assault in Rhode Island” on Feb. 15, the agency called out the ACI in Cranston, where the suspect had been detained, insisting that the facility “ignored the ICE detainer and released him.”

ACI Warden Sergio DeSousarosa referred requests for comment to J.R. Ventura, Chief of Information & Public Relations and Public Information Officer for the DOC, who provided an “official statement” on the ERO’s claims last Monday, Feb. 19.

“The inmate in question was discharged from court, not from the ACI,” Ventura said. “When inmates leave our custody to go to court, they are remanded to the custody of the Sheriff’s Office for transport. We are exclusively responsible for custody at the ACI. The court decides what happens to inmates and their sentences.”

Later that day, Ventura also confirmed that the DOC does still follow then-Gov. Chafee’s policy: “Yes, RIDOC follows the 2014 directive.”

Providence Police arrested Dela Cruz in March 2023. He was charged with first- and second-degree child molestation on March 13, 2023. According to Hodge, the Court initially “ordered him held without bail and scheduled a bail hearing for March 31, 2023.”

“On the 31st, the matter proceeded to a full bail hearing,” Hodge wrote via email on Feb. 21. “At the close of the evidence, the Judge found that the State had satisfied the first tier (proof of guilt evident and the presumption great). The State then asked the Court to continue to hold the defendant without bail, noting among other factors that the defendant was not born in the United States.”

Hodge said prosecutors do “not recall being aware that ICE had lodged a detainer against the defendant. On April 26, 2023, (District Court Associate Judge Joseph Terence Houlihan) set bail at $50,000 with surety over the State’s objection.  The defendant posted bail that same day and was released.”

The attorney general’s office took the case to the Statewide Grand Jury last fall.

“On Sept. 11, 2023, the grand jury returned an indictment charging the defendant with one count each of first- and second-degree child molestation,” according to Hodge. “(Superior Court Associate Justice Maureen B. Keough) arraigned the defendant on Oct. 4, 2023 and released him on the same bail.”

The case is next scheduled for a pretrial conference on March 13.

The next day, AG Neronha’s office revealed that their prosecutors had argued the case during a hearing, in an attempt to keep the defendant in custody. The AG’s Office provided a full statement detailing its efforts to keep the accused behind bars.

“The issue of bail in this very serious matter was the subject of a full evidentiary hearing before the district court last year,” according to AG spokesman Brian Hodge. “At the conclusion of that hearing, this Office argued that the Court should order the defendant held without bail, on the grounds that the defendant posed a danger to the community and was a flight risk. The Court, not withstanding that it found that the state’s evidence established that the proof of guilt was evident and the presumption of guilt great, ordered that the defendant be released on surety bail of $50,000, over the objection of this Office. The defendant apparently posted that bail and was released directly from the courthouse notwithstanding the lodged federal immigration detainer. Plainly, that should not have happened and there should be a review by the Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Safety of why it did.”

The AG vs. The Guv?

Several days later, DaRocha took Neronha to the woodshed.

“Attorney General Neronha should be well aware of Morales v. Chadbourne, a 2014 federal court decision which held that Rhode Island cannot hold a person in custody based upon an ICE detainer alone; to do so could violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution and expose the State to liability,” she wrote in an email to the local media. “Indeed, the Attorney General’s Office defended the DOC in the Morales case and the Attorney General’s Office helped craft the State’s ICE detainer policy to comply with the Court’s decision in Morales. Peter Neronha was the U.S. Attorney at the time of the Morales decision and the Department of Justice defended the individual ICE officials implicated in the lawsuit. As such, Attorney General Neronha was undoubtedly aware of the decision’s impact on federal and state law enforcement.”

DaRocha argued that “Neronha’s comments were unfounded.”

“They gave the false impression that Mr. Garcia Dela Cruz’s release was as a result of some act or omission on the part of either DOC or the Division of Sheriffs, rather than as a result of Constitutional constraints and ICE staffing problems,” the governor’s press secretary wrote. “It should be noted that the Attorney General’s professional responsibilities include being the legal advisor to the Rhode Island State Police and the Division of Sheriffs, and he has an ethical obligation to the DOC as its counsel in the Morales case.”

“The Governor and Division of Sheriffs are gratified that ICE has resolved its staffing issues and was able to take Mr. Garcia Dela Cruz into custody over the weekend,” DaRocha wrote to conclude her email to reporters.

Following DaRocha’s scathing criticism, Neronha took to X (the social networking platform formerly known as Twitter) to respond.

 “My memory is fine,” Neronha wrote. “I know the case Gov cites and I cited it during my interview … We did our job. Whether the Gov’s agencies did theirs was the question the media raised three days ago but went unanswered. I’m glad the Gov has finally — finally — answered that question.”

In response to requests for further comment, Hodge referred only to Neronha’s post on X.

Sanctuary State?

ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown helped persuade then-Gov. Chafee to issue his 2014 directive, which many critics called a step toward declaring Rhode Island a “sanctuary state.”

“We agree with the Governor that the criticism aimed at his office by ICE and the Attorney General is completely unwarranted,” Brown said earlier this week. “The fact that ICE was short-staffed when they were advised that this person was being released provided no grounds for the state to continue to detain him; it was ICE's responsibility to pick him up, nobody else's, so the blame falls on them. In fact, it would have been illegal for the state to continue to hold him, something ICE and the Attorney General certainly should know.”

Brown argues the accused, who has yet to be convicted, held up his end of the deal so far.

“It's also worth emphasizing that the controversy generated by ICE and the AG is over an incident that took place almost a year ago,” Brown said. “The Attorney General's office asked a judge to deny bail to this person — who, it must be remembered, was presumed innocent — because they were concerned he was a flight risk. The judge disagreed and ordered him released with certain conditions. The judge was proven right. Over the course of almost a year, this person attended all his court hearings and made no effort to flee.”

Immigration has once again become a hot-button issue on the national stage. The right warns of caravans and unfettered infiltration at the border. While leftwing office-holders offer translucent and sometimes opaque policy statements, rarely committing to concrete positions, fearing criticism from both flanks.

“It is therefore deeply troubling to see state and federal agencies attempt to politicize this incident, as it only serves to inflame passions against immigrants in Rhode Island in general, and undocumented immigrants in particular, the overwhelming majority of whom abide by our state's criminal laws,” Brown criticized, offering “one final note” on the case.

“The ACLU of RI was involved in the court case cited by the Governor that limits the state's power to hold people based on ICE detainers,” Brown recalled. “It's worth noting that that case involved a U.S. citizen who had twice been held by state authorities based on (erroneous) ICE detainers, profoundly demonstrating the dangers of giving ICE broad powers to demand the detention of people through that process.”


In the meantime, ICE has refused to back down or amend the news release that launched the conversation.

“Your story is correct when it reported the individual was ‘released last spring despite a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) order to keep him in custody,’” ICE spokesman John Mohan wrote Tuesday morning. “We stand by our news release as accurate. As cited in the news release sub headline we correctly noted that : ‘Local jurisdiction ignored ICE detainer and released the Guatemalan national.’ The immigration detainer was filed by ERO Boston in March 2023 after the individual was encountered where he was detained at the time (the ACI). Also as cited in the release, the immigration detainer filed by ERO Boston was not honored and the individual was released ‘in April 2023 by order of the Sixth District Court of Providence.’”

Beacon Communications forwarded the Rhode Island Sheriffs Department incident report (provided by McKee’s office) to Mohan and fellow ICE spokesman James Covington: “The attached report from the Sheriff's office says quite clearly that ICE was short-staffed and could not send anyone to pick up the inmate. Can you respond to this portion directly?”

Mohan replied with the following: “We are going to decline to comment further except to repeat that we stand by the accuracy of our news release, which, as mentioned, cites that the ‘local jurisdiction ignored ICE detainer’ and the individual was released ‘in April 2023 by order of the Sixth District Court of Providence.’”

The governor’s office said they had no further response following the receipt of ICE’s latest statement.

RI GOP Seeks Clarity

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Office of the House and Senate Minority (GOP) Caucuses issued a “call for clarity from Gov. McKee.”

Rhode Island state Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jessica de la Cruz and state House Minority Leader Rep. Michael W. Chippendale issued a joint statement, asking McKee to reveal his “plan should a large group of migrants arrive at our doorstep and a definitive answer or repudiation as to Rhode Island’s status as a ‘sanctuary state.’”

“As long as 113 Rhode Island Military veterans and 1,800 Rhode Island residents are sleeping on the streets, we should not be accepting any migrants shipped into our state,” Chippendale said. “Our citizens must be assured that our already overburdened healthcare, housing and social services will not be further impacted by the arrival of migrants into our state while our citizens are suffering. Rhode Islanders deserve immediate clarification of the state’s policies and should demand such from Gov. McKee.”

Sen. de la Cruz has submitted public records requests aimed at exposing the details of the arrest and release of the inmate in question.

“Now, we have learned that a Guatemalan national, with an active ICE detainer was released on surety following charges of first-degree child molestation, raising serious questions regarding public safety,” she wrote. “This massive failure significantly increases the need for clarification of the state’s policy regarding illegal migrants with active detainer orders. Was this incident an egregious error or a matter of policy? According to the RI Department of Corrections, they still follow the 2014 directive of then-Governor Lincoln Chafee of not honoring federal immigration detainers.”

Together, Chippendale and de la Cruz called on “Gov. McKee to act in the best interest of Rhode Islanders by immediately clarifying the state’s policies and sanctuary status regarding illegal migrants and to end the very real threat to public safety from a decade-old mandate stifling collaboration of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.”

Beacon Communications forwarded the GOP press release to McKee’s office asking for a response; none was offered.

Winning the Blame Game?

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr., a fellow Democrat, worked in McKee’s office prior to announcing his candidacy for mayor. Since leaving McKee’s administration, Polisena has become a vocal critic of his former boss.

“Governor McKee's emphasis on deflecting blame raises concerns about his commitment to effective governance and proactive problem-solving,” Polisena said late last week. “In times of crisis or adversity, it's paramount for leaders to demonstrate accountability and take decisive action to rectify the situation. Simply shifting responsibility without taking concrete steps towards resolution does a disservice to the constituents who rely on effective leadership. Whether it’s the Washington Bridge, the insane Pawtucket soccer stadium deal, this lapse with the illegal immigrant, instead of allocating energy towards disassociating himself from the problems we face, Gov. McKee should channel his efforts into implementing strategic measures aimed at long-term solutions.”

Polisena called McKee “the Bailey Zappe of Governors” — more third-string quarterback than team coach.


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