PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The federal government has settled a lawsuit brought by a naturalized American citizen who a federal judge determined was held on an immigration detainer because of her Hispanic last name and Guatemalan place of birth, in violation of her constitutional rights.

Under the agreement, the government agreed to pay Ada Morales $35,000 and issued assurances that federal databases have been updated to ensure she won’t be detained again, according to Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The decisions in this case have become real landmarks in the battles over immigration detainers and sanctuary policies around the country. And that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Ms. Morales’s bravery in standing up and saying this is wrong,” Wofsy said on Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed in Rhode Island in 2012. The federal government was dismissed from the case last week after reaching a settlement agreement. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the settlement.

Morales had also sued the state over her detention. Those claims were dismissed, but she could appeal.

Morales, who became a naturalized citizen in 1995, was arrested by Rhode Island State Police in a benefits fraud case in 2009. After her initial appearance in court, she was held in custody for a little over 24 hours based on a detainer issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

She was strip-searched and spent what she described as the worst night of her life at the state prison, according to a January decision by U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell.

In that decision, the judge pointed out it was the second time Morales had been held on an immigration detainer. He found that two employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement had violated Morales’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“This 24-hour illegal detention revealed dysfunction of a constitutional proportion at both the state and federal levels and a unilateral refusal to take responsibility for the fact that a United States citizen lost her liberty due to a baseless immigration detainer through no fault of her own,” McConnell wrote.

Wofsy said Morales felt vindicated by the settlement.

“I think that the most important thing has always been bringing some of these very problematic practices to light,” he said.


This item has been corrected to show that the lawsuit was filed in 2012, not 2011.