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Immigration: Homeland Security hit with flurry of immigration lawsuits

August 17, 2011 |  5:14 pm

Deportation of an undocumented immigrant.
The Obama administration must be gearing up for a long fight in federal court after immigrant and civil rights groups filed a slew of lawsuits this month. The claims seek to gain class-action status and challenge a wide swath of policies, including federal requests to police to detain individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.

The most ambitious suit was brought by the Heartland Alliance's National Immigration Justice Center in Illinois, and involves allegations that the Department of Homeland Security's practice of asking police to detain individuals without any real evidence is unconstitutional.

The group contends that Homeland Security uses immigration detainers to get police to hold people in custody, even when there is no probable cause that they are deportable, in violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments.

As a result of the lax rules, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are among those who have been ensnared by programs that work in jails. Among the most controversial is Secure Communities, under which  police are required to submit the fingerprints of anyone held in jail to immigration officials, who then check for deportation orders. Federal officials can then issue a detainer requesting police keep an individual in custody for up to 48 hours.

One of the named plaintiffs in the case is a U.S. citizen who was in police custody. He was prevented from getting out on bail after immigration officials issued a detainer asking police to hold him even though he is not deportable.

Nearly a dozen cases involving U.S. citizens being deported or nearly removed have been reported in recent years. In 2008, Jose Ledesma was nearly ordered deported by a judge at a Lancaster detention center just north of downtown Los Angeles. Ledesma, a U.S. citizen, was released after a newspaper story revealed he was born in California. In February, George Ibarra, a U.S. citizen and veteran, was released from an Arizona detention center where he had spent months fighting a deportation case.

Whether you endorse stricter enforcement of existing laws or favor comprehensive immigration reform, surely the federal government has a responsibility to protect its own citizens, not deport them. Yet Homeland Security officials have been reluctant to discuss what systemic checks are in place to prevent such errors. Ultimately, this lawsuit may shed some light on this troubling trend.

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--Sandra Hernandez

Photo: An undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, chained for being charged as a criminal, prepares to board a deportation flight to Guatemala in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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