Justice Department is Misusing Criminal Database to Unlawfully Target Immigrants, Coalition Lawsuit Charges

December 17, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Civil rights and immigrant defense organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a post-9/11 initiative by Attorney General John Ashcroft to enlist state and local police in the routine enforcement of federal immigration laws.

The groups charged that the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have unlawfully entered civil immigration information into a federal criminal database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), accessed by state and local police millions of times each day, subjecting immigrants to the risk of unlawful arrest by state and local police.

“”Enforcing immigration law is a highly technical matter that requires training and expertise that state and local police do not have. This new policy invites discrimination and abuse,”” said Lee Gelernt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and a member of the legal team in today’s lawsuit. “”In addition, as is widely recognized by the police themselves, immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses will be less likely to contact police if they fear arrest for immigration violations.””

As reported in today’s Washington Post, the Justice Department is already planning to further expand the NCIC database by adding the names of any foreign students who have allegedly violated their status, which could be based on such technical matters as not taking enough units, failing a class or a university’s failure to keep its records up to date.

Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and also a lawyer on the case, said the database initiative was “”part of a concerted effort by the Justice Department to try to obliterate the separation between criminal law enforcement and immigration status violations without public scrutiny.””

“”The Justice Department is pushing this agenda while refusing to disclose its secret legal memorandum claiming that local police have the authority to enforce civil immigration laws,”” he added.

In April 2003, Guttentag explained, the ACLU filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act to compel the Justice Department to disclose a legal policy memorandum that the Department widely proclaimed as concluding that local police have the “”inherent authority”” to enforce civil immigration status violations. That lawsuit remains pending in federal court in New York.

More than 60 local police and sheriff departments around the country, numerous law enforcement organizations, and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities have publicly stated their opposition to state and local police engaging in the routine enforcement of immigration law.

The plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit are National Council of La Raza, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Latin American Workers Project, New York Immigration Coalition and UNITE, represented by attorneys with the ACLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Washington Square Legal Services, Inc., The Bronx Defenders, and the law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton.

The ACLU attorneys are Guttentag, Gelernt, and Omar Jadwat of the Immigrants’ Rights Project; and Art Eisenberg and Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The case, National Council of La Raza et al. v. Ashcroft et al., No. 03-6324, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The complaint is online at /node/35402

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