Lowenstein Sandler



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Four years ago, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Operation Return to Sender initiative required that each of its fugitive operation teams capture 125 immigrant fugitives every year. But in 2007 ICE reportedly increased this annual quota 800 percent, to 1,000 arrests.The Am Law Pro Bono 100

Lowenstein Sandler partners Kenneth Zimmerman and Scott Walker say this quota spike led to unconstitutional raids by ICE officers. In early 2008, representing nine legal immigrants whose houses were searched by warrantless ICE officers who claimed to be police, Lowenstein sued ICE and some of its administrators and officers in federal district court in Newark. (ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the agency would not comment on ongoing investigations.)

The suit, filed in partnership with the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice, alleges that the defendants breached the plaintiffs' fundamental privacy and due process rights in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages and is the first suit to target the legality of these raids over a substantial period of time across an entire state. (Other lawsuits involving similar raids throughout the country have focused on single incidents.)

Between 2005 and 2008, according to the complaint, ICE officers showed up at the plaintiffs' homes before dawn, banged on their doors and windows, and forced their way inside when someone answered the door. The officers were looking for immigrants with outstanding deportation orders. They often asked the plaintiffs if they were hiding any fugitives. Some of the plaintiffs were allegedly handcuffed and detained, despite having proper immigration documents, and in one case, says Walker, an officer pointed his gun at a small child.

Operation Return to Sender was established to round up fugitive immigrants, including felons and those wanted for immigration violations, but Walker says there is evidence "that [ICE is] targeting immigrants generally by doing neighborhood sweeps." Of the 2,079 individuals arrested through this program in the 2007 fiscal year, 87 percent had no criminal history, according to the complaint.

The government moved to dismiss the case, but the motion was denied. In May 2009 the district court judge dismissed ICE administrators' qualified immunity claims and allowed for more discovery into the officials' involvement in the raids. The government officials have since filed a motion for reconsideration, which at press time Lowenstein attorneys were preparing to oppose.

—Claire Zillman | July 1, 2009

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