ACLU Seeks Disclosure of "Secret Law" on Local Police Enforcement of Federal Immigration Laws

April 14, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of a new Department of Justice policy granting local police unprecedented powers to enforce non-criminal immigration laws. The Attorney General has refused to make the new policy public even though it reverses a longstanding federal policy.

“There is no justification for secret lawmaking,” said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, which filed the lawsuit. “If the Attorney General has nothing to hide and believes that this radical change in policy is permitted, let him say so openly and disclose the legal authority for his decision. That is the essence of responsible and accountable government.”

According to the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed on behalf of a coalition of seven civil rights and immigrants’ rights groups, the Attorney General has adopted a new policy that allows state and local police to arrest and detain certain immigrants who are believed to be in violation of non-criminal provisions of the federal immigration laws. Despite repeated requests, the Department has refused to release the new policy or its legal basis to the public.

The groups said in legal papers that the Attorney General has overruled a 1996 Justice Department policy by issuing a legal opinion providing local police with new authority to enforce non-criminal immigration laws. According to the lawsuit, the change “would constitute a dramatic departure from prior policy and practice on an issue of national importance, with profound consequences for citizens and immigrants alike.”

“Allowing local police to enforce immigration violations is bound to have a negative impact on community-police relations and public safety,” explained Cecilia Munoz, Vice President of the National Council of La Raza, one of the groups represented in the lawsuit. “Victims of domestic violence and other crimes will be less likely to seek police assistance for fear of being turned in. How does that make us any safer?”

In the past, dozens of local police officials and law enforcement organizations have spoken out against state and local participation in immigration enforcement, saying that it would jeopardize their relationships with immigrant communities and divert local law enforcement resources from the more important job of trying to control crimes against people. As Montgomery County (MD) Police Chief Charles Moose told a Washington radio station in May 2002: “This movement by the federal government to say that they want local officers to become INS agents is against the core values of community policing: partnerships, assisting people, and being there to solve problems.”

Other groups represented by the ACLU are the New York Immigration Coalition, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Immigration Forum, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

The case is National Council of La Raza et al. v. Department of Justice, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Attorneys for the groups are Guttentag and Omar C. Jadwat of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Michael J. Wishnie, an ACLU cooperating attorney in New York, and Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The legal papers are online at /node/35416

The Department of Justice’s previous policy is online at

The ACLU’s amended complaint is online at /node/35414

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