A federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut ruled last week that the civil rights of a group of illegal aliens were violated when immigration officials rounded them up in raid and jailed them. In a controversial move, Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that the immigrants could bring direct legal action against immigration agents as well as top officials, including the agency’s then-national director, Julie L. Meyers. The immigrants are also suing the U.S. government.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency asked that the lawsuit be dismissed on the grounds that senior agency officials could not be held personally liable in that they were far removed from the action, and that immigration agents could not be sued for doing their jobs.
The raids took place in New Haven, and were part of a national campaign called “Return to Sender.” Immigration agents in four teams arrested 32 immigrants, mostly from Mexico, while they were in their apartments. The raids took place in the summer of 2007.
The 11 plaintiffs in the case were represented by a group of lawyers and students from Yale Law School. The Yale lawyers claimed that the immigration officials had no right to enter the homes of the illegal aliens and arresting them and by doing so, violated their 4th, 5th and 10th Amendment rights. They also alleged that those arrested were treated unfairly based on race.
The city of New Haven had been in the process of adopting policies to make it easier for illegal immigrants to live and work in the area. Two days before the raids, the city’s board of Aldermen approved a measure that would issue identification cards to the city’s estimated 15,000 illegal immigrants.
The mayor of New Haven, John DeStafano Jr., who supported the card program, said he believed the raids by federal immigration agents were intended to punish the city for operating a sanctuary program.
Over two dozen lawsuits were filed by plaintiff lawyers stemming from the raids, but the civil rights case filed by the workers and the Immigration Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School has received the most attention because of its strategy to personally go after the agents and senior officials.
Federal officials say that the raids were legally conducted and were part of a national operation to help clear a backlog of “fugitive aliens” with outstanding deportation orders.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said that only five of the 32 arrested had deportation orders, while only 2 had criminal records.
The lawsuit singles out senior ICE official John Torres who they say, shifted the focus of agents from arresting fugitives, to ordinary illegal aliens that posed no danger to the public. They say that he created a quota system, approved by Myers, which set a goal of arresting and deporting 1,000 fugitives per year, of which one-half could be illegals that were picked up during raids for the fugitives.
Muneer Ahmed, a Yale law professor on the case said that the ICE argued that immigration law precluded the case from being heard in the federal court. “I think that other courts will pay attention to it, and I think that ICE will pay attention to it,” Ahmad said. “ICE has long maintained that it should have a kind of immunity from suit that other law enforcement officials don’t have.”
A recently retired ICE agent, John Sakelires, commenting on the ruling said “this suit is nothing more than a transparent and feeble attempt to scare ICE agents into refusing to enforce the immigration laws of this country. Can you spell intimidation? When it goes to trial, my guess is the agents will be exonerated and what should happen is that the government should seek fees for wasting taxpayer money in defending a baseless lawsuit,” Sakelarides said. “Extortion is still illegal in this country. The far reaching implications claim is a clear indication of what the intent of this lawsuit is, namely intimidation.”
“This is borderline criminal. If the agents did something wrong, so be it. But if they didn’t and this suit is being brought simply to induce a chilling effect on the enforcement of the immigration law, then these idealistic and naive law students and Yale Law School ought to be held accountable,” Sakelarides finished.