Implications of ICE suit still unclear

While immigrants’ rights advocates lauded Monday’s settlement between the U.S. government and 11 New Haven men arrested in a 2007 raid by federal immigration agents, litigation for four others detained in the raids is still pending, and the case’s legal implications remain unclear.

Six of the 11 men, members of their legal team and local supporters spoke at a press conference about the case in the Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library in the Hill neighborhood Wednesday morning. The settlement — a $350,000 award to the plaintiffs and the cessation of all deportation proceedings against them — is among the largest monetary settlements ever made by the U.S. over Immigration and Customs Enforcement residential raids and is the first to include both compensation and immigration reviews, said Trudy Rebert LAW ’13, a member of the legal team.

Twenty-nine Fair Haven residents were arrested during the 2007 raids, in which ICE agents entered five households on the morning of June 6 without search warrants and in some instances with guns drawn. The 11 men who won the settlement filed a lawsuit in October 2009 alleging that federal immigration authorities violated their Fourth, Fifth and 10th Amendment rights through the raids’ planning and execution.

“Immigration agents didn’t respect our rights, they didn’t respect our privacy, they didn’t respect the tears of our children,” said plaintiff Washington Colala-Peñarreta, who was arrested by ICE agents in a raid of his Fillmore Street apartment, at Wednesday’s press conference. “Nothing compensates us for what we suffered during that period in prison, but the settlement agreement demonstrates that injustice always comes with some compensation.”

Although Cristobal Serrano-Mendez, another plaintiff, said he thinks the outcome shows “the government knows it did something wrong,” and immigration rights supporters similarly cheered the settlement, no ICE agents or officials have been found guilty of a crime or admitted to any wrongdoing, raising questions as to how substantial the victory is for immigrants.

“As stated in court documents, this settlement is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the U.S. government,” ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein said in an email to the News, adding that ICE decided to settle with the plaintiffs in hopes of avoiding prolonging costly litigation on the case.

Four people arrested in the 2007 raids who chose not to participate in the civil rights lawsuit remain in immigration proceedings.

“The facts of those cases are identical to the cases of the individuals here today with whom the government has settled,” said Muneer Ahmad, a Yale Law School professor and attorney representing the 11 plaintiffs who settled Monday and the four still in proceedings. “They were in the same homes that were broken into in the same manner by the same agents.”

In the four outstanding cases, an initial motion to suppress evidence from the raids was denied by immigration judge Michael Straus. The Board of Immigration Appeals overturned Straus’s earlier decision and sent the cases back to him to correct any previous error.

“We are, at a minimum, several years from the resolution of those cases if the government chooses to continue its efforts to deport those four,” said Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93, a Law School professor and an attorney for the four cases.

Ahmad said he has filed applications to the government for a settlement to end litigation concerning the conduct of ICE agents and proceedings on the immigration status of the four remaining plaintiffs.

“Our hope is that the government will treat those cases with the same commitment to reconciliation that they did [with Monday’s settlement],” he said.

Wishnie said at least four of the 29 arrested in the raids have since earned a green card or some form of legal status. Others have chosen to return to their country of origin rather than pursue litigation. Only two people detained in the raid were deported.

While it is unclear what effect Monday’s settlement might have on immigrants’ rights, Yurika Cooper, a partner at the Immigration Law Group in Washington, D.C. — a private firm practicing exclusively in immigration law — said the lawsuit’s outcome fits into a national trend toward greater recognition of rights, including those of undocumented residents.

“If you are illegal and you are a victim of a crime, does it make you less worthy of police protection than someone who is a U.S. citizen?” Cooper asked. “The trend has been one of greater awareness of victims’ rights in general — there are a lot of advocacy efforts and a lot of attorneys working pro bono for susceptible groups.”

Cooper also said the settlement is an example of “prosecutorial discretion,” where ICE officials employ circumstantial judgement to determine whether deportation is appropriate. Cooper and student interns at the Law School legal clinic said ICE typically targets fugitives and felons guilty of violent crimes for deportation proceedings.

Cooper cited a deadly Florida car crash in January this year as an example of the policy. Jose Carmo, his wife and their two daughters were driving a van on an interstate highway before colliding with several other vehicles in a pileup accident. The Carmo family had emigrated from Brazil to the United States illegally in 2000, and every family member except for the younger, 15-year-old daughter was killed in the crash. Cooper said through prosecutorial discretion, ICE decided it would be unjust to deport the orphaned girl, who had been raised her entire life in the United States.

In August of last year, President Barack Obama introduced legislation promoting greater use of prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases. While such policy measures do not offer formal amnesty to illegal immigrants, several states have resisted Obama’s plan.

Law professor Wishnie said Obama’s new guidelines “will take time” to take full effect, but added that he hopes they will eventually change the institutional culture of ICE.

Lauren Filiberto, an immigration attorney at Murtha Cullina, a law firm in New Haven, said ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are increasingly exercising prosecutorial discretion in a manner that is pro-immigrants’ rights. It is unclear, however, whether the 11 Fair Haven plaintiffs received a settlement in recognition of a violation of their constitutional rights or if the payout was a means to “shut the door” on pending litigation that would have cost more dollars, she said.

According to an October statement by ICE Director John Morton, 396,906 individuals were deported from the United States in the 2011 fiscal year, the largest number of deportations in the agency’s history.

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