Immigration Agency Faces Lawsuits Over Tactics

Federal immigration agents have dramatically stepped up raids in the past few years. Officials say they target only criminals and those who have ignored deportation orders. But immigrant rights groups complain many with no criminal record are being swept up.

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Over the past two years, the federal immigration agency has stepped up its offensive against illegal immigrants living in communities across the country. The agency says it targets criminals and those who've ignored deportation orders. Rights groups complain that authorities are using unconstitutional tactics to sweep up many undocumented immigrants with no criminal record.

And as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the immigration agency is facing a flurry of lawsuits.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Federal immigration agents arrived in Willmar, Minnesota last April with warrants for six people. They'd been ordered deported and had a variety of criminal convictions, like domestic abuse, welfare fraud and criminal sexual conduct. But the agents stayed in this small prairie town for four days, heading out early each morning, arresting dozens more people.

As word of the raid went round, Jenny Maldonado(ph) says she grabbed her 9-year-old son and rushed here to a friend's house. Maldonado came to Minnesota from Honduras four years ago. She joined a growing community of Latino families drawn by work at the Jennie-O Turkey processing plant. When federal agents suddenly surrounded her friend's house, Maldonado says everyone inside froze.

JENNY MALDONADO: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: They never told us they were immigration, she says. They shouted, police. They banged on the front door. And then...

MALDONADO: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: Maldonado shows where she says agents walked right in the unlocked backdoor. The breezeway was blocked with two, big bags of garbage, she says, but they climbed over them and came in the kitchen. After questioning everyone, Maldonado says two agents pulled her and her sobbing son apart, arresting her in front of him.

MALDONADO: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: At the end of an operation that began with six arrest warrants, agents had 49 undocumented immigrants in custody. Half, like Maldonado, had no criminal record or prior deportation order.

MARIA DIAZ: It was like a nightmare because there were just so many phone calls.

LUDDEN: Maria Diaz is a community organizer who scrambled from one house to another, trying to help the families of those taken. She says agents would interrogate people and search their homes, rifling through drawers, reading mail, then use information from that to seek out others.

DIAZ: Some of the cases where the families were forced to turn in their friends or their brothers or, you know, family members, you know, like, you know, where's so and so? And you're going to take us to see them and they'll take them.

LUDDEN: Again and again, those here say they never gave permission for agents to enter their homes and were shown no warrants. Many were simply woken up in their beds, flashlights in their faces. Others say they cracked the door and agents pushed their way in. In one case, residents say agents broke the window and a locked door.

And Diaz says a number of those questioned were U.S. citizens or legal residents.

DIAZ: It was clear to me that they were stopping and following people that had brown skin.

LUDDEN: Gloria Contreras-Edin of Centro Legal in Saint Paul has filed suit on behalf of three dozen of Willmar's residents, half of whom are legal. She accuses Immigration and Customs Enforcement of violating people's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

GLORIA CONTRERAS: No one, despite the fact that they may be undocumented, is subject to an unlawful entry into their home. You either need consent or you need a warrant. And in most cases, there wasn't either.

LUDDEN: A string of other lawsuits make similar allegations. In Connecticut, Tennessee, Georgia, New York. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they can't comment on anything that's before the courts, but they're eager to explain how the agency is making a bigger effort to arrest more illegal immigrants.

Unidentified Man: Fernandez(ph)?

LUDDEN: This office in Baltimore, Maryland is one of the fast-growing number of so called fugitive/absconder teams. There were 17 such teams just a few years ago and 75 today. They're the ones who carry out the home raids, going out, finding immigrants ordered out of the country long ago and bringing them in for deportation.

Unidentified Woman: So that's it. We're just going to start setting up your travel arrangements.

LUDDEN: The backlog of those who've ignored deportation orders has been growing out of control to some 600,000 absconders this year before these new teams helped it finally drop a bit.

JOHN TORRES: We arrested about 30,000 people last year.

LUDDEN: John Torres oversees these teams at the agency's Detention and Removal Office. He says the priority is to arrest criminals. A new support center slogs through mounds of law enforcement records to turn out leads. And a tips line logs thousands of calls.

TORRES: We get fresh leads and then we go out. And just like gumshoe detective work, you can knock on doors and chase down those leads. Obviously, our teams are focused on those who have absconded and ignored a judge's order for not going out, indiscriminately just trying to determine who's illegal, who's not.

LUDDEN: But Torres says if while seeking their targets agents encounter others here illegally, what some call collaterals, they are duty bound to arrest them as well. In fact, in January 2006, the agency dropped the requirement that 75 percent of those arrested be criminal aliens. It also upped its target, stating that each absconder team should try to arrest 1,000 immigrants a year. One lawsuit in New York accuses the agency of trying to round up as many people as possible to meet that goal, something Torres denies.

Jan Ting of Temple University Law School asks this: What's the alternative when an agent encounters an unauthorized immigrant?

JAN TING: If the answer is, well, you know, give them a break, let them all stay, then what you really have is open borders.

LUDDEN: Ting doesn't think the legal challenges to the raids stand much chance even if agents did enter homes without consent. He points out immigration matters are considered civil, not criminal. Some routine constitutional guarantees don't apply.

TING: You know, illegal aliens are not entitled to jury trials. They're not entitled to lawyers paid for by the taxpayer. They're not entitled to, you know, a Miranda warning since it's not a criminal case. All the government is trying to determine is where this individual properly belongs.

LUDDEN: In Minnesota, the reaction to lawyer Gloria Contreras-Edin's lawsuit certainly hasn't been all sympathetic. She saved one voicemail. An anonymous woman said she was fed up paying for illegal immigrants' education and health care and found it outrageous that public courts were being used to fight their arrest.

BLOCK: I think we should have a sign up at the border that says we shoot to kill, then we should follow through with that. And I think we should have a great, big fence like the one in Jurassic Park that shoots out 10,000 volts.

LUDDEN: Contreras-Edin says she's not arguing that illegal immigrants have the right to stay in the U.S. But if the government is going to be deporting more and more, she like them to do so with a little dignity. And she thinks she may already have had a small impact. Shortly after the Willmar raids and her lawsuit, Contreras-Edin says there was another immigration operation in Minnesota. This time, residents told her federal agents knocked on doors. And when immigrants told them they could not enter their homes and there was no arrest warrant, the agents turned and left.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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