Not So Fast on Deportations, Judges Tell Immigration Agency
Posted February 9, 2018 11:32 p.m. EST
For a year, immigration agents have been enforcing the Trump administration’s orders to deport noncitizens at full speed with but one roadblock: the federal courts.
Immigration activist Ravi Ragbir was scheduled to be deported to Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, but that was put on hold when his lawyers filed a lawsuit in Manhattan on Thursday. The government agreed to delay his removal until the court can decide whether his rights have been violated.
His case was one of a growing number in which federal judges have ruled to halt both individual and mass deportations. Last week, a judge in a New Jersey district court temporarily stopped the deportation of Indonesian Christians, longtime community members in Highland Park, New Jersey, who had been swept up by immigration agents. A day earlier, in Boston, a judge made a similar ruling in the case of 50 Indonesian Christians, and in December, a Miami judge halted the deportation of 92 Somalis. In June, a judge in Detroit halted the deportation of more than 100 Iraqi Christians, and then expanded the ruling to cover a class of as many as 1,400 people.
These federal judges are not deciding immigration cases, over which they have no jurisdiction, but rather giving people time to fight in the immigration courts. They are slowing deportations by insisting that unauthorized immigrants still have the right of due process, even if in many of these cases, the immigrants had known for years that they could be expelled.
Immigration officials offered sharp rebukes to the judges Friday.
“I am increasingly troubled by orders from federal judges halting the deportation of certain groups of individuals, all of which appear to ignore the fact that each alien in question was lawfully ordered removed from the United States after full and fair proceedings, many of which lasted several years or longer, at great taxpayer expense,” said Thomas D. Homan, the deputy director of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency, known as ICE.
“Further, these orders hinder ICE’s efforts to address the clear public safety threat posed by many of these aliens — the majority of whom have criminal convictions,” he said. “Of course, entering the United States illegally is, itself, a crime.”
Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, countered that the Trump administration is moving “abruptly” to deport the immigrants “without giving them a fair chance to go to immigration court.”
He said he thought judges were “being very careful not to go beyond what they have legal authority of what they can do.”
Consider the case of Ragbir, 53, who had a green card when he was convicted of wire fraud in 2000. After serving a prison sentence, he was first ordered deported in 2006, detained and then released on an order of supervision while he appealed his case. Ragbir since 2011 had checked in periodically with ICE, which continued to allow him to stay in the country.
Then, at his Jan. 11 check-in, ICE detained him, saying he had exhausted his appeals, and took him for deportation. His defense team filed several challenges to keep Ragbir in the country.
At the end of January, Judge Katherine B. Forrest of U.S. District Court in Manhattan ordered Ragbir released from detention and his deportation delayed. The government, she said, had denied him his right of due process, namely, “the freedom to say goodbye.”
With rhetorical flourish that drew the ire of ICE, Forrest, an appointee of President Barack Obama, also compared the United States to “regimes we revile” for what she deemed was “unnecessarily cruel” treatment of Ragbir.
ICE then scheduled his deportation for Feb. 10.
On Thursday, Ragbir’s lawyers filed a First Amendment suit claiming that ICE had targeted their client because he was an outspoken activist as the director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City.
Matthew T. Albence, executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE, denied that charge. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” he said in a statement. “Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.”
On Friday morning, Ragbir’s lawyers argued in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, for a separate stay of deportation so that Judge Kevin McNulty could consider vacating his criminal conviction. Ragbir’s lawyers claim there were errors at his trial.
McNulty, who was appointed by Obama, said he would take advantage of the pending case in Manhattan to take time to rule, first on his jurisdiction in Ragbir’s case. “The damage he’d suffer, and the injury he’d suffer, as a result of deportation, is obvious to me,” McNulty said during the hearing.
The New Jersey district court also issued a temporary hold on deportations of a group of Indonesian immigrants. Two Indonesian fathers were suddenly arrested by ICE on Jan. 25 after dropping their children at school. Two others took sanctuary in their church, the Reformed Church of Highland Park, including Harry Pangemanan, who had helped rebuild more than 200 homes after Hurricane Sandy.
Judge Esther Salas, an appointee of Obama, declared on Feb. 2 that the Indonesians could not be deported until she could hear the case.
In 2009, more than 40 of these residents, many of whom had overstayed tourist visas and had asylum claims denied, agreed to register with the government in a humanitarian program, in exchange for temporary stays of deportation. Thanks to the intervention of their pastor, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, they got work permits and had periodic check-ins with ICE, under a program known as “Operation Indonesian Surrender.”
But last summer, ICE began ordering the deportations of Indonesian Christians.
Lawyers argued, however, that conditions in the Muslim-majority country had since deteriorated for Christians, so much so they could be tortured if they returned. The government, under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, is required to assess the danger for immigrants before it deports them. In Boston, District Court Judge Patti Saris, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, ruled on Feb. 1 to temporarily halt the deportation of a group of Indonesians who had been living in New Hampshire.
In a hearing Jan. 17, she told the government lawyers that she had not even had a chance to read a petition filed by the Indonesians’ ACLU lawyers. “You’re moving so fast to get them out of here,” Saris said.
The government has appealed.
In Los Angeles, District Court Judge Cormac Carney, an appointee of President George W. Bush, stopped the deportation of hundreds of Cambodians in December. Many had been living for decades in the country after fleeing the Khmer Rouge and during that time had been convicted of various crimes. Nonetheless, Carney said, they had rights.
Stephen H. Legomsky, a professor of immigration law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said judges appear to be more active only because they are responding to the aggressiveness of immigration officials.
“Generally, when the political branches do extreme things,” he said, “judges will respond with more and more constraints.”