Our VoiceCulture

Civil Rights Lawsuit’s Outcome Holds ICE Accountable. Finally.


Catharine Debelle • Feb 24, 2012

Across the nation people are frustrated by the lack of comprehensive immigration reform that President Obama promised during his 2008 campaign.

In 2011 community organizations and members of Congress requested that the president use executive power to defer removals, revaluate policies and priorities, and interpret the law as compassionately as possible. But can compassion be found in immigration enforcement, and who is to receive these “golden tickets?”

Dream Act advocates and activists request deferment for young hardworking students. Others also call for exercising prosecutorial discretion for individuals with longstanding ties to the community and US-citizen family members, which would prevent the break-up of families. In response to these cries for compassion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declared in August 2011 that it would institute new initiatives and review the nearly 300,000 pending removal cases to assess whether each meets the higher criminal priority cases.

Many disagree with this temporary band-aid for immigration reform. Harsh immigration critic, Tanton-network ally, and University of San Diego (USD) professor Peter Nunez argues that “Every person in the US illegally, [sic] and every legal immigrant who commits a ‘deportable offense’, [sic] is subject to deportation [….] The DHS should always process any violators who fall into its lap, in addition to those who fit the established priorities.”

Others like USD Professor David Shirk hold a different point of view. Shirk said, “When you have 10 million to 12 million people—roughly 3% of the US population—living in the shadows, you need to determine where to prioritize scarce resources. It would actually be in our own best interest to find ways to help boost the Mexican economy, the second-largest market for US exports (after Canada). Instead, we ignore the causes and focus on the symptoms.”

These new developments signal a growing recognition on the Obama administration’s part that it must prioritize and distinguish between different types of immigration cases. However, immigration enforcement officials must make decisions about how to yield their power and whom to target for removal.

The close of a recent lawsuit stemming from the Fair Haven, CT, ICE raids of the summer of 2007 may show just how much the law can bend towards to the side of compassion. On December 15, 2011, a federal judge ruled in favor of eleven plaintiffs in a civil rights suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The case questioned whether ICE supervisors and higher-ups could be held responsible for ground-level action.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by lawyers and students from Yale Law School, claim that ICE agents entered their homes without warrant or consent, arresting thirty-two people and violating their 4th, 5th, and 10th Amendment rights. Muneer Ahmad, a Yale law professor on the case, said, “ICE has long maintained that it should have a kind of immunity from suit that other law enforcement officials don’t have.”

The plaintiffs and the government reached an unprecedented settlement totaling of $350,000. The deal also allows the choice of deferring any immigration action against them for four years, or the termination of any pending deportation proceedings against them. Those who choose the deferred action can reapply for a permanent status in the US.

The case represents so much more than just compassion born from immigration law. It represents the responsibility and accountability of all ICE and immigration enforcement officials to uphold the law and human rights.

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