Court blocks deportations of several Central American families

The nation’s highest immigration court has blocked the deportations of a handful of families who were apprehended as part of an effort to combat illegal immigration. In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort a detainee in an apartment building in the Bronx borough of New York during a series of early-morning raids. Richard Drew AP

The nation’s highest immigration court has delayed the deportations of four families out of hundreds of Central American migrant adults and children rounded up in raids over the New Year’s weekend as part of a nationwide effort to combat illegal immigration, according to the families’ lawyers. They expected to win a fifth stay Wednesday.

The Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision, made late Tuesday, is a small yet potentially significant breakthrough for lawyers fighting the raids, as it raises questions about Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s assurances to the public earlier this week that those being deported had exhausted all their legal options.

The families’ lawyers said the stays of deportation had been granted to allow time to appeal their cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals – a step none of them had yet taken. The families had been scheduled to be deported from the United States on Wednesday morning back to their home countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

“What does it mean when we get five out of six cases stayed? That means something is wrong here,” said one of the lawyers, Laura Lichter, general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “If there was no case, nothing here, we wouldn’t have gotten the stay.”

Johnson said this week that 121 people had been taken into custody, mainly in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. The Obama administration operation focused on adults and their children who’d been apprehended as of last spring after crossing the southern border illegally, had been issued orders of removal by an immigration court and, Johnson said, “have exhausted appropriate legal remedies.”

“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values,” Johnson said in a statement Monday.

Federal officials said Wednesday night that they can’t comment on pending litigation, but they will respect lawfully issued stays of removal. Gillian Christensen, press secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the enforcement action targeted adults and their children who were subject to final orders of removal who presented their claims to an immigration judge.

“ICE did not target individuals with pending appeals before the Board of Immigration Appeals, or individuals for whom the time period to file such an appeal had not expired,” Christensen said.

The holiday raids were the first in a large-scale effort focused on Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, and they drew swift criticism from activists. Lawyers advised the migrants to simply not open the door if approached by immigration agents.

Lichter and other lawyers, organized through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, charged the Obama administration with rushing to deport the families without properly screening whether they had exhausted their due process rights. The attorneys filed requests to stop the deportations for five out of a half-dozen cases they’d reviewed. The declarations to the Board of Immigration Appeals included the families’ affidavits explaining why they feared returning to their home countries.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded critics of President Barack Obama’s November 2014 immigration priorities, which placed more emphasis on recent arrivals of individuals who’d crossed the border without proper legal documentation.

“This is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the president himself has talked about; that our enforcement efforts need to be focused on deporting felons, not families, and with a particular focus on individuals who have only recently crossed the border,” Earnest said.

Immigrant advocates have described the weekend raids as abusive and with a sole purpose of trying to scare migrants and deter others from coming here. They accuse the government of trampling over the migrants’ rights. Federal agents have detained the families without providing warrants, they say. Families are being taken to a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, where lawyers are waiting to help. But the lawyers say many detainees have been blocked from seeing legal representatives. One woman, lawyers said, asked for a lawyer before signing her deportation order and was denied.

“The mothers we have heard from were victims of fraudulent lawyers. They have legal rights in this country and, by ICE now violating those rights, they have even more legal options available to them,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.


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