Overturning a key provision of an injunction issued last year by a judge in San Francisco, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday gave immigration agents in the northern half of California the right to resume widespread sweeps of factories in search of illegal aliens.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit--expected to lead to a quick resumption of factory sweeps as far south as Bakersfield--was praised by immigration officials in both Los Angeles and San Francisco as a ruling which stands as legal precedent throughout the nation.
"We've been waiting for the decision," said Art Shanks, deputy director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Francisco. "We're raring to go again."
Because the original injunction applied only to the northern half of the state, INS agents in Los Angeles and other southern counties continued periodic factory sweeps during the last year and were not immediately affected by Thursday's decision.
"We have been conducting maybe one or two factory sweeps a week," said John R. Belluardo, an INS spokesman in Los Angeles. "It never slowed us down, but we are very gratified by the decision because we think it will be strong legal precedent in cases here and elsewhere."
Lawyers for a coalition of immigration rights groups, who won the original injunction in October, 1985, from U.S. District Judge Robert P. Aguilar of San Francisco, saw the ruling as a setback, but also pointed out that the 9th Circuit sustained restrictions in how the factory sweeps can be conducted.
"It's a disappointment," said Alan Schlosser, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco. "They certainly are free now to conduct factory raids, and they are going to see this decision as a green light to resume their cowboy tactics.
"But many portions of the injunction stand," Schlosser added. "They can't just burst into a factory and start seizing people without any questioning at all. The injunction also provides that they give workers a reasonable chance to produce documents. If they violate the law during raids, they will still be subject to contempt."
INS officials maintain that factory sweeps are needed to protect jobs for U.S. workers, but critics claim such raids in the past have been staged primarily as "media events" and have been largely ineffective. The INS catches most illegal aliens within a 50-mile radius of the Mexican border.
The 9th Circuit opinion was written by Senior Judge Eugene Wright of Seattle, joined by Circuit Judge Jerome Farris of Seattle and U.S. District Judge John S. Rhoades of San Diego, sitting as a designated member of the appeals panel.
While restoring the power of immigration agents to conduct factory sweeps, the judges agreed with Aguilar that there was "extensive evidence" of systematic constitutional violations by INS agents that justified most terms of the injunction.
The judges ruled, however, that factory sweeps are legal because "Congress contemplated vigorous INS enforcement" and "INS activities are not analogous to a criminal investigation" in terms of the standard of proof needed in obtaining search warrants.
In addition to restoring the right to conduct factory raids, the 9th Circuit panel accused the immigration rights groups of delaying the case, originally filed in 1982, and ordered Aguilar to terminate all provisions of his injunction by Oct. 28 to encourage speedy resolution of the case.
Protesting that order as an "arbitrary cutoff date," Schlosser and other immigration lawyers involved in the case denied that they had been guilty of any "stalling tactics," and said there was no possibility of bringing the case to trial before the deadline.
They also said the ruling in the San Francisco case could have an impact on the outcome of a similar immigration case currently before Senior U.S. District Judge David W. Williams of Los Angeles.
That case, originally filed by seven Orange County residents in 1979, was certified as another class-action suit by Williams in April, and also involves charges that INS agents systematically violate constitutional protections by raiding homes and businesses of Latinos in search of illegal aliens.
Williams, who is still deciding the case, issued an order barring the INS from entering homes and businesses without a warrant in 1980, but was overruled by another 9th Circuit panel last year.