Blog Archive

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Frustrated Judge Can't Stop ICE Deportation; A plaintiff suing ICE is deported

By Betsy Yagla
New Haven Advocate

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A reluctant judge won’t allow an undocumented immigrant to stay in the country to pursue a lawsuit against the immigration agency that’s deporting him.

The 44-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, Washington Colala, was one of 32 immigrants swept up in a 2007 Fair Haven raid. The raid came on the heels of New Haven’s plan to offer ID cards to all residents, including immigrants.

The raid was seen as the federal government’s retaliation for a liberal city’s “sanctuary policies.”

Those arrested claimed their civil rights were trampled during the raids — Immigrant Customs and Enforcement agents did not identify themselves, forced their way into homes and searched homes without warrants.

Most of those arrested had no criminal history despite ICE’s claims that the agency only focuses on undocumented immigrants who are involved in serious crimes.

Now, as 11 of those 32 immigrants are seeking justice through a civil rights lawsuit against ICE, one of the key witnesses — Colala — is facing deportation. Colala’s attorneys claim it will be nearly impossible for him to participate in the lawsuit from his village in the Amazonian part of Ecuador.

Colala’s case was cited by national civil rights groups LatinoJustice and the National Council of La Raza in letters asking ICE to stop deporting plaintiffs in lawsuits against ICE.

“For us, it is about individuals whose rights need to be heard, who should have their day in court,” says La Raza legislative analyst Laura Vazquez explaining why La Raza is petitioning ICE to change its policy. “And in this country, we believe in the principle of equal justice before the law.”

That lofty goal was not met during an emergency hearing last week in U.S. district judge Stefan Underhill’s Bridgeport courtroom.

Underhill said he didn’t see any legal avenue for him to halt a decision — an immigration judge’s decision to deport Colala — made in another court.

Colala’s attorneys, Yale law students with The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization and supervising attorney Muneer Ahmad, argued that Underhill did have that authority: By keeping Colala in the country, Underhill could ensure a smooth court proceeding in the pending civil rights case.

Underhill asked Ahmad to cite any case in which a judge had done something similar. Ahmad couldn’t but insisted that Underhill had the “inherent authority” to do so.

“It’s surprising to me that I have an inherent authority to do this if there are no other cases like this,” replied Underhill.

That’s because there are so few cases like Colala’s, Ahmad said.

There are five states, including Connecticut, in which ICE is in the process of deporting plaintiffs in lawsuits against ICE, according to the National Council of La Raza.

It is rare that immigrants arrested in raids have lawyers fighting their deportation. It’s even rarer that they’re able to file civil rights lawsuits.

So if Colala — with a team of idealistic lawyers behind him — couldn’t win a deferral of his deportation, it doesn’t bode well for others.

Although Underhill expressed unwillingness to keep Colala in the country long enough to see through his civil rights case, the judge was clearly frustrated by the government.

“As a comment, to the extent that the government is doing this as a tactical maneuver, I think it is a very poor tactical move,” Underhill told the government attorneys.

The government’s attorney, Washington, D.C.-based Senior Litigation Counsel Christopher Dempsey, bristled.

“The United States is not removing Mr. Colala as a tactical matter,” he said. Dempsey argued that if any immigrant facing deportation could file a lawsuit against ICE and be allowed to remain in the country, “the immigration system in this country would come to a halt.”

But ICE can choose when, or if, to deport someone in the country illegally, says Brittney Nystrom, National Immigration Forum’s policy and legal affairs director.

“We would urge the department to at least announce a policy where they are willing to consider allowing individuals to finish their civil rights litigation,” Nystrom says.

“There’s nothing more American than justice for all and having one’s fair day in court,” she says. “We as a nation have built a civil and criminal justice system around that principal and equal protection.”