Ruling Opens Way for Latinos’ Class-Action Lawsuit Against INS
In a decision that could affect the way Immigration and Naturalization Service agents apprehend and detain suspected illegal aliens, a Los Angeles federal court judge ruled Wednesday that “all persons of Latin ancestry” lawfully residing in the central judicial district of California could be represented as a class in a lawsuit originally filed against the INS by a group of Orange County residents.
The central district includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
The suit, filed in 1979, alleges that INS agents violated the constitutional rights of seven people by entering their homes or places of business without search warrants or consent from the owners. The plaintiffs are all Latinos who are legal U.S. residents, but they allege that the agents stopped them merely because of their appearance.
In his decision to turn the lawsuit into a class action, senior U.S. District Judge David W. Williams wrote, “This court has already found that INS engaged in a pattern and practice of conduct in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The order refers to more than “25 INS entries into homes” that allegedly violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The ruling should “have an immediate impact in reducing the manner in which the INS has heretofore run roughshod over the Fourth Amendment while engaged in enforcement activities,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the National Center for Immigrants’ Rights Inc. in Los Angeles and the lead attorney in the case. “The judge’s order will allow the court to examine and rule upon INS temporary detentions and entries onto private property.”
However, it is too early to tell how Wednesday’s ruling will affect current INS enforcement policies, according to INS regional counsel Bill Odencrantz. “We have significant factual disputes with the allegations in the lawsuit,” Odencrantz said.
He said that although he is “not pleased” with Williams’ decision to certify the case as a class action, the INS is “eager to get to trial.” The case is scheduled for trial next month.
In response to the lawsuit, in May, 1980, Williams issued a preliminary injunction barring the INS from entering homes and businesses without a search warrant or valid consent. But a portion of that order was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March, 1985. The appeals court ruled that the preliminary injunction would only apply to the individuals in the lawsuit unless the lower court certified the case as a class action.
The lawsuit, filed against the INS seven years ago, stemmed from several incidents in Orange County.
A Santa Ana couple, Domingo and Virginia Zepeda, alleged that on two different nights, INS agents and local police officers illegally entered their home and searched it. Business and restaurant owners allegedly had their businesses searched by INS agents and local police officers who refused to allow anyone to leave.
Another U.S. citizen was in the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus depot when INS agents allegedly ordered him to produce proof of lawful status. Because he had no papers, he was handcuffed, taken outside and chained to an INS van, according to court records.
According to the motion for class certification, “INS agents would seek out the Hispanic neighborhoods and then, aided by local police officers, proceed to conduct residential sweeps.”
Could Affect Sweeps
Schey said Williams’ ruling could affect INS sweeps like those that took place earlier this month in the Riverside County city of Corona. On April 10, during a four-hour period, several INS agents helped local police officers arrest about 100 suspected illegal aliens on the streets and at various locations, including the parking lot of Corona High School.
Odencrantz defended the agency’s willingness to help local police departments round up suspected aliens. He said cities like Santa Ana have asked the INS for help in arresting suspected aliens involved in criminal activities, such as drug dealing.
“If the police have a warrant, often they can only charge people criminally if they have direct evidence of a drug buy,” Odencrantz said. “But a large majority of people involved in drug distribution are illegal aliens. We (the INS) come along, get them out of the country and that helps dry up the drug supply.”