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Immigrants' Lawyers Challenge Government Tactics


By MARK SPENCER | The Hartford Courant November 4, 2008


Lawyers representing a group of immigrants facing deportation are aggressively challenging the tactics used by federal immigration agents in raids last summer in New Haven.


The lawyers want the cases dismissed, claiming Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents violated the immigrants' constitutional rights by illegally entering their homes, arresting them without warrants and using racial profiling to target them.


Over the objections of ICE attorneys, Judge Michael W. Straus granted the hearings and heard six men testify Monday in federal immigration court in Hartford. Eleven more immigrants will have hearings during the coming weeks before Straus rules on the cases.


Lawyers defending immigrants are beginning to challenge arrests on constitutional grounds, arguments commonly heard in criminal courts.

Defendants in immigration court, governed by administrative law, more typically argue their status should be changed, if for example they are married to a U.S. citizen, or seek asylum or simply agree to leave the country voluntarily.


Immigration law experts say the new approach is in response to changing ICE tactics, including more arrests, at times involving large groups of immigrants in highly publicized raids.


"It is definitely a growing area because there has been more concern about illegal searches by ICE around the country," said Rex Chen, supervising attorney at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., who has written and lectured about the strategy.


The Connecticut immigrants are represented by lawyers and students from Yale Law School's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization. The group made similar arguments in the Danbury 11 case, in which day laborers were arrested in a joint ICE and Danbury police raid in 2006, but Straus denied them a hearing.


Monday's hearing got off to a rocky start almost from the first question government attorney Leigh Mapplebeck asked Edinzon Yangua-Calva, the first immigrant to testify.


While the immigrants' lawyers wanted to keep questioning tightly focused on what happened during the raids on the morning of June 6, 2007, the ICE lawyers wanted broad latitude to question the witnesses, prompting another response more common to criminal proceedings.


Whether Mapplebeck asked about where they were from, where they were educated, what identification documents they had or even at times who lived with them, the immigrants and their attorneys repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.


"I can't get through five sentences without getting some creative legal theory," Mapplebeck said in frustration after one objection from the immigrants' lawyers.


She said broad questions was essential to a "full and fair" picture of the case and the immigrants lawyers were trying to pick and choose what was presented.


But Christopher Lasch, a Yale clinical lecturer, said he could not allow his clients to say things that could later be used against them in a criminal case.


ICE once mainly focused on deporting illegal immigrants, but criminal prosecutions for criminal violations, such as document fraud, have become more common, changing the landscape for those defending them, legal experts said.


"What the government is doing is using this hearing to go on a fishing expedition," Lasch said.


Straus at times seemed incredulous at Yale's approach, at one point calling it "ridiculous."


Each immigrant who testified described mundane early morning routines — waiting for a ride to work, brushing their teeth, sleeping with a wife and children in a single, shared room — interrupted by loud and persistent knocking at the door.


Each man said four to six "police" came into their homes or bedrooms without permission, often waving the photo of a person they said had a deportation order and asking if the occupants knew him.


The men described being scared or nervous as they were handcuffed and taken away.


ICE attorneys, who may have agents testify at a later date, declined to comment after the hearing.


Jane Lewis, a Yale student legal intern, said the wrangling over the Fifth Amendment was dramatic and Straus was clearly frustrated.


"On the other hand, I do think he was listening carefully on the legally relevant issues," she said. "He was listening when they said, 'I didn't open the door.'"

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