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A bad day for Trump administration on immigrant front as it suffers three legal defeats in one day

 Immigration and Customs Enforcement
An ICE deportation officer in Laguna Niguel reviews forms required to issue a detainer asking local law enforcement to hold someone for ICE agents.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times )

In a third defeat in less than a day for the Trump administration, a federal judge blocked it from vastly extending the authority of immigration officers to deport people without first allowing them to appear before judges.

The decision late Friday came before the policy, which was announced in July, was even enforced. The move would have applied to anyone in the country less than two years.

For the record:
1:31 PM, Sep. 28, 2019 An earlier version of this article misspelled U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr.'s last name as Birrote.

The decision came just after a federal judge barred Immigration and Customs Enforcement from relying solely on flawed databases to target people for being in the country illegally.

Early Friday, the administration suffered what would be its first defeat on the immigrant front in less than 24 hours when a federal judge blocked its plan to dismantle protections for immigrant youths and indefinitely hold families with children in detention.

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Those protections are granted under the so-called Flores agreement, which was the result of a landmark class-action court settlement in 1997 that said the government must generally release children as quickly as possible and cannot detain them longer than 20 days, whether they have traveled to the U.S. alone or with family members.

In a statement Saturday, the White House responded angrily to the decision to halt its plans for expedited removal of immigrants.

“Once again, a single district judge has suspended application of Federal law nationwide — removing whole classes of illegal aliens from legal accountability,” the statement read in part. “For two and a half years, the Trump Administration has been trying to restore enforcement of the immigration laws passed by Congress. And for two and a half years, misguided lower court decisions have been preventing those laws from ever being enforced — at immense cost to the whole country.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had sought the injunction granted just before midnight celebrated the result.

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“The court rejected the Trump administration’s illegal attempt to remove hundreds of thousands of people from the U.S. without any legal recourse,” said ACLU attorney Anand Balakrishnan, who argued the case. “This ruling recognizes the irreparable harm of this policy.”

In the first setback Friday for the Trump administration, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said new rules it planned to impose violated the terms of the Flores settlement. Gee issued a strongly worded order shortly after, slamming the changes as “Kafkaesque” and protecting the original conditions of the agreement.

Gee wrote that the administration cannot ignore the terms of the settlement — which, she pointed out, is a final, binding judgment that was never appealed — just because leaders don’t “agree with its approach as a matter of policy.”

Barring a change in the law through Congressional action, she said, “Defendants cannot simply impose their will by promulgating regulations that abrogate the consent decree’s most basic tenets. That violates the rule of law. And that this court cannot permit.”

The new regulations would have eliminated minors’ entitlement to bond hearings and the requirement that facilities holding children be licensed by states. They also would have removed legally binding language, changing the word “shall” to “may” throughout many of the core passages describing how the government would treat immigrant children.

The government is expected to appeal.

In the second decision Friday, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. issued a permanent injunction barring ICE from relying solely on databases when issuing so-called detainers, which are requests made to police agencies to keep people who have been arrested in custody for up two days beyond the time they would otherwise be held.

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ICE is also blocked from issuing detainers to state and local law enforcement in states where there isn’t an explicit statute authorizing civil immigration arrests on detainers, according to the judge’s decision.

The decision affects any detainers issued by an ICE officer in the federal court system’s Central District of California.

That designation is significant because the Pacific Enforcement Response Center, a facility in Orange County, is an ICE hub from which agents send out detainer requests to authorities in 43 states, Guam and Washington, D.C. It is covered by the Central District.

“ICE is currently reviewing the ruling and considering our legal options,” Richard Rocha, an agency spokesman, said in a statement. “Cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement agencies is critical to prevent criminal aliens from being released into our communities after being arrested for a crime.”

Tens of thousands of the requests are made each year to allow ICE agents additional time to take people suspected of being in the country illegally into federal custody for possible deportation. Approximately 70% of the arrests ICE makes happen after the agency is notified about someone being released from local jails or state prisons.

In fiscal year 2019, ICE has lodged more than 160,000 detainers with local law enforcement agencies, according to the agency.

Although police in California do not honor these ICE requests because of earlier court rulings that found them unconstitutional, agencies in other parts of the country continue to enforce them.

The civil case, which has wound its way through years of delays and legal wrangling, has broad implications for President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration as the ACLU and other groups sought to upend how immigration officers target people for being in the country illegally.

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“I think the decision is a tremendous blow to ICE’s Secure Communities deportation program and to Trump’s effort to use police throughout the country to further his deportation programs,” said Jessica Bansal, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

The class-action lawsuit, which represents broad categories of people who have been or will be subjected to detainers, alleged the databases that agents consult are so badly flawed by incomplete and inaccurate information that ICE officers should not be allowed to rely on them as the sole basis for keeping someone in custody.

The judge agreed with that assessment, finding that the databases often contained “incomplete data, significant errors, or were not designed to provide information that would be used to determine a person’s removability.”

These errors, according to the decision, have led to arrests of U.S. citizens and lawfully present noncitizens. From May 2015 to February 2016, of the 12,797 detainers issued in that time frame, 771 were lifted, according to ICE data. Of those 771, 42 were lifted because the person was a U.S. citizen.

The detainer process begins when police arrest and fingerprint a person. The prints are sent electronically to the FBI and checked against the prints of millions of immigrants in Homeland Security databases. If there is a match — such as someone who applied for a visa or was apprehended by Border Patrol — it triggers a review process, which often culminates with an agent at the center deciding whether to issue a detainer.

Last year, the Pacific Enforcement Response Center issued 45,253 detainers and alerted agents at field offices to more than 28,000 additional people released from law enforcement custody before ICE could detain them.

Trump has singled out police in California and elsewhere for their refusal to honor detainers, using them to highlight what he says are problems with the country’s stance on immigration enforcement and the need to take a more hard-line approach.

In the years since the lawsuit was filed, ICE has amended its policies, saying the changes made the process for issuing detainers more rigorous.

Times staff writers Andrea Castillo and Molly O’Toole and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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