The complaint is based on eight home raids across the state of New Jersey between August 2006 and January 2008. The raids all follow a similar pattern, in which immigration agents forced their way into each plaintiff''s home in the early hours of the morning without a judicial warrant or the occupants'' consent. Most of the plaintiffs were awakened by loud pounding on their doors and answered the door, fearing an emergency. ICE agents subsequently either lied about their identity or purpose to gain entry, or simply shoved their way into the home. During each raid the agents swept through the house and, displaying guns, rounded up all the residents for questioning. In some cases they ordered children out of their beds, shouted obscenities, shoved guns into residents'' chests, and forbade detained individuals from calling their lawyers. In at least half the raids, the officers purported to be searching for a person who did not even live at the address raided.
The complaint asserts that these practices are not isolated violations, but are examples of a clear modus operandi typical of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") program called "Operation Return to Sender." Under this program, the complaint alleges, ICE agents have been ordered to meet dramatically increased immigrant arrest quotas using grossly outdated address information and without having been trained on lawful procedures.
"This is the first lawsuit in the country to focus on the consistency of these abusive home raid practices across an entire state, and over a significant period of time," said Bassina Farbenblum, an attorney at the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice. "Our complaint shows that what happened to our plaintiffs in the middle of the night was not exceptional. It was part of a routine, widespread practice, condoned at the highest levels of government, that tramples the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike."
ICE claims that Operation Return to Sender was designed to arrest criminals and individuals with old deportation orders, people whom ICE calls "fugitives." But the statistics belie this explanation. Of the 2,079 people arrested in New Jersey last year under this program, 87% had no criminal record, and as few as 1 in 3 were "fugitives" with outstanding deportation orders. These statistics demonstrate that the program has been used as a pretext for dragnet searches in which ICE makes thousands of what it euphemistically calls "collateral arrests" of people like the plaintiffs in today''s suit.
The complaint alleges that responsibility for the pre-dawn raids and the associated constitutional violations reaches senior federal officials, including the head of ICE, Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Julie Myers, who knew about the practice and allowed it to continue. The complaint also seeks to hold responsible local police officers who participated in one of the raids alongside ICE agents.
"None of the home raids in today''s case involved valid warrants allowing the agents to enter, and none of the residents gave consent," noted plaintiffs'' attorney Scott Thompson, of Lowenstein Sandler. "The Constitution is very clear about the circumstances under which law enforcement may enter a private home, and the entries in this case did not even come close."
According to the complaint, the constitutional violations did not cease once agents had entered the homes. For example, plaintiff Maria Argueta, a legal resident, was arrested in her home at 4:30 in the morning and detained for 24 hours without food or water; the agents lied to get into her home then refused to even to look at her immigration papers proving her status. Agents shoved a gun into the chest of another plaintiff and screamed obscenities at her. Numerous ICE agents and local Penns Grove police officers stormed yet another plaintiff''s house at three in the morning with guns drawn, without a search warrant, claiming they were looking for her brother, whom the government had actually deported at least two years earlier.
"Repeatedly in this country''s history, and especially during our most challenging times, immigrant populations have been the targets of suspicion, hostility and overly aggressive law enforcement tactics," said plaintiff''s lawyer and Seton Hall Law Professor Baher Azmy. "If we don''t want to regret this moment, as we''ve come to regret previous ones, we should stop to consider the costs of these lawless and abusive practices -- to our commitment to fair and humane procedures and to the human beings in our midst who suffer real harm."
Previously, the Center for Social Justice and the newspaper Brazilian Voice filed a Freedom of Information Act suit in federal court, challenging the government''s withholding of documents about the raids. That lawsuit, filed January 28, 2008, can be found at http://law.shu.edu/csj/iceraids.html.
A copy of the complaint and fact summaries can be found at http://law.shu.edu/csj/iceraids.html .
Seton Hall University School of Law, New Jersey''s only private law school and a leading law school in the New York metropolitan area, is dedicated to preparing students for the practice of law through excellence in scholarship and teaching with a strong focus on clinical education. The Center for Social Justice, a core of Seton Hall Law School''s Catholic mission, provides clinical education and volunteer opportunities to students and engages in various forms of advocacy, scholarship and direct legal services in an effort to secure equality, civil rights and legal protection for individuals and communities in need. Seton Hall Law School is located in Newark. For more information visit http://law.shu.edu/ .
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Source: Lowenstein Sandler PC