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SPLC lawsuit: Federal government withholding records about immigration raids that targeted women, children

The federal government has failed to release records under the Freedom of Information Act that would shed light on controversial – and potentially unconstitutional – immigration raids that took more than 100 women and children from their homes and placed them in a Texas detention center before deporting many of them, according to a lawsuit filed by the SPLC and Alston & Bird today to obtain the records.

The complaint describes how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency violated the public records law by failing to promptly release documents to the SPLC following a Jan. 7 request. The raids, which were executed without warrants on Jan. 2 and 3, targeted women and children from Central America living in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Many of the immigrants had been granted permission to remain in the United States, subject to certain conditions.

The raids have been condemned by 146 members of Congress.

“ICE is notoriously stubborn when it comes to releasing public records,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “There are serious questions about whether ICE agents’ conduct during these raids violated the Constitution. We cannot allow ICE, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, to avoid accountability and violate federal law by withholding these records.”

The SPLC believes that during the raids, agents gained entry to the immigrants’ homes by deception. Some said they were police officers looking for a suspect, showing a photo of an African-American man to the residents. Others claimed they only needed to take the immigrants from their homes long enough to examine electronic shackles they wore as part of an agreement with ICE that allowed them to remain in the country.

If an immigrant asked to see a warrant, the agents said to “be quiet,” according to the complaint. The women and children were taken to an immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas. Most of the immigrant families detained were deported.

The records sought by the SPLC would show how and why ICE pursued the 121 immigrants swept up by the raid. The operation’s impact nationwide has been considerable. Trust between local law enforcement and immigrants has eroded since the raids. Immigrants nationwide now fear answering their door or going to work, school or church, according to the complaint.

“Until we can review the records, the possibility of justice for these immigrants will be out of reach,” said David Gann, senior associate at Alston & Bird, the SPLC’s co-counsel. “It is important for DHS and ICE to release their files on these raids.”

The SPLC report, Families in Fear, chronicles the stories of several victims of the Atlanta-area raids. Attorneys on this case are Graybill and Eunice Cho of the SPLC and Gann and Lindsey Yeargin of Alston & Bird.