A longtime Los Angeles civil rights attorney is trying a new strategy to push federal immigration authorities to change the way they conduct workplace raids.
Peter Schey filed 114 federal claims for damages late Thursday on behalf of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who were temporarily detained during a recent raid at Micro Solutions Enterprises in Van Nuys.
On Feb. 7, armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents went into the company, blocked the exits and prevented all the employees from leaving while they carried out federal arrest warrants for eight people and a search warrant as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. Those eight were arrested on criminal charges and 130 others were arrested on immigration violations.
Schey said immigration authorities treated U.S. citizens and green card holders like suspected criminals without any reason to believe they had broken the law.
“That group detention is completely unconstitutional,” said Schey, head of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. “They have no individual probable cause, yet they come in like the Gestapo.”
Immigration authorities said the warrants were signed by a U.S. magistrate judge, and the search warrant was issued based on the “likelihood that evidence of criminal violations would be found at the location.”
“The search was properly conducted in accordance with the warrant, federal rules of criminal procedure and ICE policies,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a written statement.
Carl Shusterman, a private immigration attorney, said he had not seen the claims but that ICE’s changing its practices seemed like “sort of a long shot.”
“How can they possibly sort out the legal and illegal employees without questioning them?” he said. “How could they conduct these raids at all if they didn’t hold people at least a little while?”
But John Ayala, Southern California chapter chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said he believed the claims would force ICE to follow the letter of the law when conducting enforcement actions.
“It’s very important to remind ICE and Department of Homeland Security that the Constitution is at play and people have rights,” Ayala said. “They should go in there looking for those eight workers. They shouldn’t go in there on a fishing expedition.”
The 114 legal workers, including Clare Cox, are each seeking $5,000 in damages.
Cox, a U.S. citizen, said she heard the agents before she saw them. Without identifying themselves, the agents told everyone to line up against the wall, she said. For about 35 to 40 minutes, Cox said, she was prohibited from leaving.
“I felt like we were being arrested,” said Cox, who distributes inventory at the company. “I felt like we had no rights.”
Cox said immigration authorities could have handled the arrests in a more diplomatic and less theatrical way.
“I believe in immigration laws. I believe in everyone being documented,” she said. “I don’t believe in these scare tactics.”
Mike Whitehead, also born in the United States, said he was detained for about 45 minutes and had to answer a few questions and show his identification before being let go. The whole experience was scary and intimidating, he said.
“It was degrading. I was born in this country,” said Whitehead, a sales representative for Micro Solutions. “It could have been handled completely differently. It could have been handled with dignity.”