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Trump's Immigration Crackdown Suffers More Legal Setbacks

  • Massachusetts’ top court slammed jailing a Cambodian man
  • U.S. judge in Detroit halts deportation of 1,400 Iraqis

U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration agenda suffered a pair of legal setbacks this week that hint at more high-stakes showdowns for his administration at the Supreme Court.

Massachusetts’ top court on Monday ruled people who aren’t accused of a crime can’t be detained solely at the request of immigration officials, a common practice in cities coast to coast. And a federal judge in Detroit halted the deportation of about 1,400 Iraqis -- a key element of a recent U.S.-Iraq accord.

The latest blows to the administration come amid still-unresolved legal fights over Trump’s travel ban against six mostly Muslim countries and a looming budget struggle in Congress over funding for his promised border wall with Mexico that risks a government shutdown.

The court in Boston found Sreynuon Lunn, a Cambodian accused of robbery, should have been released from jail after the charge was tossed out. Instead, Lunn was kept behind bars based on a so-called civil detainer request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which suspected he should have left the country years ago. Lunn stayed in the U.S. after Cambodia failed to issue travel documents, according to Monday’s ruling.

The “decision is a victory for the rule of law and smart immigration and criminal justice policies, and a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat and a frequent critic of Trump, said in a statement.

C.M. Cronen, the field director of ICE’s Boston office, saw the court’s decision differently.

"While ICE is currently reviewing this decision to determine next steps, this ruling weakens local law enforcement agencies’ ability to protect their communities," Cronen said in a statement.

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In a separate case, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Detroit said on Monday that the government is moving too quickly to return about 1,400 Iraqis to a country where they face a “grisly fate” including persecution and torture. They must be given a chance to challenge their deportations so that those facing “grave harm and possible death are not cast out of this country before having their day in court,” the judge said.

The Iraqis targeted by immigration authorities, a mix of Muslims and Christians from the Detroit area and elsewhere in the U.S., were previously deemed eligible for removal because they were convicted of crimes or had overstayed their visas.

The immigrants’ cases were dormant for years before the Trump administration abruptly moved for deportation after reaching a deal with the Iraqi government to take them back. Now, their lawyers are crying foul. The repatriation agreement with Iraq was negotiated as a condition of dropping that country from the president’s executive order temporarily banning travelers from the six mostly Muslim nations.

The Trump administration has said the vast majority of undocumented immigrants should be removed to improve public safety. The president proposed stripping federal funding from cities that refuse to cooperate.

"ICE cannot force state governments to do its bidding," Reaz Jafri, who leads the immigration practice at Withers Bergman LLP in New York, said in response to the Massachusetts ruling. "Doubtless, this will be appealed to the circuit court and ultimately the Supreme Court will need to chime in."

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The dispute may trigger an array of legal battles, ranging from racial profiling and ICE raids on businesses to whether local police can be deputized to carry out immigration stops and searches.

The judge in Detroit said he was obliged to intervene in the attempted deportation of the Iraqis because the federal government was on the cusp of violating fundamental rights of liberty protected by the U.S. Constitution. Goldsmith said that by moving the Iraqis to detention centers across the country, ICE has made it difficult for them to get legal representation.

The court order bars individual Iraqis from being deported until they have a chance to pursue their claims before administrative immigration judges.

This week’s rulings are just the latest in a series of decisions critical of the federal government’s immigration crackdown.

A Miami state judge in March issued a scathing opinion slamming the city for holding a Haitian immigrant on behalf of ICE officials even though he wasn’t accused of a crime. In June, a federal judge in San Antonio ruled a county violated the rights of an undocumented immigrant by keeping him in jail on an ICE detainer for more than two months after his misdemeanor assault charge was dismissed.

A Dallas-based federal judge warned last year that while federal agents have the right to detain suspected undocumented immigrants under many circumstances, local officers aren’t empowered to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

The Texas rulings have pitted some judges against the legislature in Austin, where Republicans passed a law earlier this year making it a crime for local sheriffs and police not to cooperate with ICE detainers. Almost all of Texas’s big-city mayors and police chiefs spoke against the legislation, which is being challenged in federal court.

Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing to block Texas’s sanctuary-city ban, said he fears what might happen if such policies were adopted in all 50 states.

“It could result in an immigration police state,” Gelernt said. “That’s not what Congress meant” in crafting federal immigration policy.

The Iraqi case is Hamama v. Adducci, 17-cv-11910, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit).

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