11/01/2006

SPLC Sues Immigration Agency

Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of raids in Georgia

Federal immigration agents conducted illegal searches and relied on racial and ethnic profiling while carrying out a massive series of raids that terrorized residents of several towns in southeast Georgia in early September, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The lawsuit charges that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents illegally detained, searched and harassed Latinos solely because of their appearance -- in violation of their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights -- during an extensive campaign to drive them out of the area.

The plaintiffs are five U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and a landlord who suffered damage to his rental properties when ICE agents broke into numerous trailers that were rented by Latinos.

"It's outrageous that this could occur in America today," said Morris Dees, Center founder and chief trial counsel. "These ICE agents swooped into town, armed with everything but search warrants, and started rounding up people -- citizens and non-citizens alike -- merely because they had brown skin. Imagine the fallout if this had happened to white people."

The series of raids across several towns in at least three counties began on September 1 and lasted for several weeks. The raids, involving dozens of ICE agents, were ostensibly intended to locate undocumented immigrants who worked at a poultry plant in Stillmore, a town of about 1,000 people in Emanuel County.

 

But rather than conduct a raid only at the plant, the agents fanned out across residential areas -- stopping motorists, breaking into people's homes and threatening people with tear gas and guns. Hundreds of people were terrorized. Many actually fled into the woods.

"These kinds of dragnet tactics are completely inconsistent with our constitutional guarantees," said Mary Bauer, director of the Center's Immigrant Justice Project and attorney for the plaintiffs. "Just because you are poor and have brown skin doesn't mean you don't have rights under the law. We want to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Bauer said hundreds of residents were traumatized by the raids. "Many children continue to live in fear that they will be taken away by immigration officials merely because of the color of their skin," she said.

Those children include one of the plaintiffs, Marie Justeen Mancha, a 15-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Reidsville, in Tattnall County. She was alone in her bedroom getting ready for school when she heard men in another room yelling "Police! Illegals!" Some two dozens agents surrounded her home as she was detained and interrogated by armed agents who never showed a search warrant. Her mother, Maria Christina Martinez, a U.S. citizen born in Florida, is also a plaintiff.

Another plaintiff, Ranulfo Perez, was standing outside of his home in Adrian, in Emanuel County, when he was suddenly surrounded by approximately 15 men holding guns. One of the men grabbed Perez by the shirt, jammed his gun into his side and threw him against his truck. The agent twisted Perez's arm behind his back and held him that way for 10 minutes while other agents searched his home and property. The agent then suggested Perez and his family should leave the area for two weeks to avoid any more such incidents.

The other plaintiffs are Maria Margarita Morales of Oak Park, in Emanuel County; Gladis Alicia Espitia of Oak Park; and David Robinson of Metter, in Candler County.

The suit was filed in Atlanta in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The suit seeks not only compensatory and punitive damages but a court order enjoining ICE from using similar tactics in the future. The Center is asking the Court to approve the injunctive relief claim as a class action on behalf of all Latinos in the affected area.