U.S. sets new rules for immigration officers

A federal District Court judge concluded on April 4 that U.S. federal authorities must set new rules for immigration raids in private homes. This ruling comes after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were accused in a class-action lawsuit of forcing their way into eight homes of Latino families on Long Island and in Westchester County, New York, without warrants or legal justification. The raids occurred in 2006 and 2007, and in at least one case, agents barged inside with guns drawn.

“No longer will U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have free rein to invade the homes of immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, and be as abusive as they want without any worry that they might be reprimanded,” Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, told The New York Times.

Among the new rules, agents must seek permission to enter a home in the resident’s language “whenever feasible,” according to the judge’s conclusions. Agents must also get consent from residents to enter the yards and other private outside areas adjoining their homes, the settlement said.

Under the new ruling, agents are forbidden from conducting protective sweeps through the homes without “a reasonable, articulable suspicion of danger.” The federal government was also ordered to pay $1 million in damages and fees. Plaintiffs received $36,000 each and the rest of the money was used to cover fees for lawyers.

The raids were widely criticized by law enforcement, particularly because the officers acted without the judicial search warrants required to obtain informed consent from residents before they entered private homes. A 2009 study conducted by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law’s Immigration Justice Law Clinic, which was backed by several law enforcement experts, found that after analyzing arrest reports obtained from ICE through Freedom of Information lawsuits, 86 percent had no recorded consent from the residents in these homes.

“If any local law enforcement agency in the nation were involved in these types of widespread constitutional violations it would prompt a federal investigation,” Lawrence Mulvey, Nassau County Police Department commissioner, told The Times. “Federal immigration agents simply need to play by the same rules as every other law enforcement officer.”

Officials told The Times that home raids should be a last resort for high-priority targets. They also recommend the raids to be videotaped for future evidence.

One of 22 New York plaintiffs involved in the suit, Beatriz Velasquez, described the scene saying that agents rushed by her and began searching when she opened the door to her family’s home even though she never told them they could enter. Being just 12 years old at the time of the raid, she described feeling scared and helpless, and thought that authorities were looking for someone who the family didn’t know.

Ghita Schwarz, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, showed support for the agreement in a statement made to New York radio station WNYC.

“Sleeping while Latino is not a suspicious activity that justifies ICE’s forcing its way into homes and terrorizing families at gunpoint,” Schwarz  said. “Our brave clients have shown ICE agents that they are subject to the same constitutional restrictions as any other law enforcement officer; they need judicial warrants or valid consent to enter a home.”

According to The Times, most of the lawsuits to emerge from the raids in the New York region have been resolved, though the latest settlement appeared to be the only one that has required federal policy changes, immigration lawyers said. Advocates for the plaintiffs say the immigration cases against those arrested have also been deferred.