ACLU Charges Abuse in Case of Black U.S. Student Shackled and Strip-Searched by Immigration Officials

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
October 17, 2000 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–In a shocking case that is far from unique, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a black college student who was shackled, detained and repeatedly strip-searched by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials over the course of almost two days.

Richard Riley, a legal permanent resident of the United States who is originally from Jamaica, was only 18 years old when immigration officials put him through the nightmarish ordeal — including three separate invasive body searches — all the while denying his requests to speak with an attorney, or someone who could understand his legal status.

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Today’s lawsuit is not the first time the INS has come under fire over “expedited removal,” the procedure that gives low-level INS officers the power to deport people without review by a judge.

“Richard Riley’s case is a textbook example of how immigration officials can persecute the innocent under the guise of the law,” said Judy Rabinovitz, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s Immigrants Right’s Project, which brought the case with the help of New York law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

“People coming into this country are treated as though the Constitution doesn’t apply,” added Rabinovitz, saying that Riley’s case was just “the tip of the iceberg,” in terms of abuses.

By filing the lawsuit, the ACLU is calling for an investigation of the incident and $2 million in damages, saying that the INS must be held accountable for unconstitutional and cruel treatment of innocent travelers, regardless of their country of origin.

“The INS officers had no lawful or reasonable basis to detain and imprison Richard Riley and subject him to three invasive and humiliating body searches,” said Justine Harris, ACLU cooperating attorney from Kramer Levin who is lead counsel on the case. “Not only did Richard have valid documentation indicating that he was a lawful permanent resident, but, in violation of the INS’s own regulations, officials failed to make proper attempts to verify his claim.”

“The INS and its officers are obligated to uphold the law and cannot abuse their power by ignoring their own policies and the Constitution,” Harris said.

Two separate reports issued in recent months document numerous other incidents in which genuine legal visitors, asylum seekers, and others were wrongfully turned back by low-level U.S. immigration officers.

Is This America? The Denial of Due Process to Asylum Seekers in the United States, issued on Oct. 5 by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, charges that asylum seekers and others attempting to enter the United States have been wrongly turned back or treated abusively by INS inspectors at airports and border crossings. Riley’s case is among those cited.

Another study, issued by the University of California in July 2000, also documents ongoing allegations of misconduct affecting U.S. citizens, ordinary tourists or other legal visitors, and refugees who had credible claims for political asylum.

Both studies look at cases that arose since expedited removal was approved under harsh new immigration laws passed in 1996. Under a broad coalition dubbed Fix 96, the ACLU and other rights groups are supporting bills that would restore fundamental due process protections to immigration proceedings.

“We are bringing this case to assure that the INS is held accountable for their mistreatment of innocent people,” said Rabinovitz. ” People who come to the United States — asylum seekers as well as lawful residents, should not be subject to the whim of low-level officials who can easily make mistakes and deport them.”

Riley said the incident still haunts him. “The officers acted as if no one will or can ever question the way they treat people,” he said. “What they did to me was wrong and illegal. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America.”

The ACLU has prepared a fact sheet about Riley’s two-day ordeal, available online along with photographs of Riley.

Today’s lawsuit is not the first legal action the ACLU has taken against the harsh new immigration laws of 1996. In April, 1997, when the expedited removal procedures were first taking effect, the ACLU brought a lawsuit challenging the new procedures that allow the United States to turn away people more quickly, in secret, and with no judicial oversight. That lawsuit was subsequently dismissed on procedural grounds due to strict limits on judicial review imposed by the statute.

“The government is gambling with justice by allowing administrative INS officers to deport people without a hearing before an immigration judge or the possibility of judicial review,” said the ACLU’s Rabinovitz. “We are concerned that what happened to our client is happening to many others.”

The case, Riley v. United States of America and Unknown INS Officers, was filed in federal district court in the Eastern District of New York by Rabinovitz of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project, and Harris, a lawyer at the New York law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

Photographs of Riley, and a fact sheet on his ordeal, are online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/n101700a.html.

For more information on “Fix 96,” go tohttp://archive.aclu.org/action/detjud106.html.

More information on the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights report is available at http://www.lchr.org.

The Riley complaint is online at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/rileycomplaint.html.

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