DANBURY - Lawyers representing a group of day laborers swept up in an immigration raid last year fired their latest legal salvo Wednesday, filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Danbury and federal officials.
The suit alleges city police illegally conducted an undercover raid with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at Kennedy Park, arresting the men who have become known as the Danbury 11.
City police had no authority to enforce federal immigration law and relied on racial profiling rather than probable cause to randomly arrest immigrants at the downtown park early on Sept. 19, 2006, said Geri Greenspan, one of a group of Yale Law School professors and students representing the men.
"In their frustration with the arrival of new immigrants to Danbury, Mayor [Mark] Boughton and the police department have taken the law into their own hands," according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven.
In a press conference Wednesday, Boughton said Danbury police provided logistical support to an ICE operation, complied with all laws and would continue to assist federal authorities when called on.
"Frankly, we are not going to be bullied by Yale or anybody else as it relates to the equal application and the neutral applications of the laws of the city of Danbury," he said.
Nine of the Danbury 11 are fighting deportation with an aggressive legal strategy developed by Yale's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization. Two were voluntarily deported shortly after the raid and the others were detained for two to five weeks before being released on bail ranging from $1,500 to $15,000.
Another immigrant, who was picked up in what his lawyers call an illegal traffic stop in February in Danbury, also is a plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit.
During the press conference Wednesday, Juan Barrera, one of the Danbury 11, described being picked up by a man seeking workers to tear down a fence. He got into the man's van - his lawyers say the man was an undercover Danbury police officer - and was driven to a supposed construction site, where he was arrested and shackled.
"We were surprised and frightened because we didn't know what was happening," Barrera said through an interpreter.
He and the other workers were treated poorly, denied phone calls and not told for days why they were being detained, he said.
Several immigrant activists said a climate of fear now pervades the immigrant community in Danbury. Franklin Pena, an Ecuadorian immigrant, said the city is facing challenges because of immigration, but racial profiling is not the answer.
"Even if we have something like this," he said, holding up his U.S. passport, "it doesn't matter."
Many of the points in the civil lawsuit are the same ones being pressed by the Yale lawyers fighting deportation on behalf of the men. The lawyers are seeking a hearing in federal immigration court to raise constitutional questions and suppress evidence against their clients.
At an immigration court hearing on the issue in Hartford earlier this month, John Marley, a lawyer for ICE, accused the Yale lawyers of omitting crucial facts about how the raid took place, even accusing them of "fraud."
"Someone's hiding the ball," Marley said.
Rebecca Engels, a Yale law student involved in the case, said Wednesday that ICE is not used to being forced to contest the basic facts of a case.
"I think they were a bit incredulous," she said.
Judge Michael W. Straus is expected to rule Oct. 15 on the request for the hearing.
His ruling also may provide a glimpse of how he will handle the cases of about 30 immigrants arrested in raids in June in New Haven. The Yale group also is representing many of them and is raising some similar issues, such as warrantless arrests and racial profiling.
In the civil rights suit, the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages.
The suit claims immigrants have been targeted in a variety of ways in Danbury, including such actions as unequal enforcement of housing codes, traffic stops and shutting down neighborhood volleyball games, a popular sport among Ecuadorians.
"The arrival of new Latino immigrants, and the failure of the federal government to address immigration's local effects, has sparked a backlash from Mayor Boughton's administration, which has targeted, harassed and intimidated these new residents through a number of discriminatory policies," the suit says.
Boughton also blamed the federal government for its failure to enact immigration reform. He has favored tougher border security, financial assistance to cities and a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
In 2005, Boughton was rebuffed by state officials when he asked that state police be authorized to enforce immigration law, as allowed under federal law. He said the city is now considering whether it should seek the same power for its police department.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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