JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) — The 11th Circuit pressed the government Tuesday on whether it had pure motives in deporting a prominent immigrant rights activist.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Argentine immigrant Claudio Rojas in February 2019 just before he was scheduled to speak at the Miami Film Festival for his role in “The Infiltrators,” a documentary criticizing conditions at an ICE detention facility in South Florida. The film first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won two awards.
“ICE’s actions constitute outrageous retaliation,” Rojas’ attorney, Alina Das, told the Atlanta-based appellate panel Tuesday. “These actions made international headlines precisely because they sent a message: criticize ICE and ICE will deport you.”
Responding to some pushback from U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Tallman, a Clinton appointee who normally presides in the 9th Circuit, Das said the lower court dismissed the case prematurely last year.
Das, a law professor at New York University and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic, insisted Rojas’ claims of a First Amendment violation should have been heard.
“His deportation itself is unlawful,” Das said.
Justice Department attorney Thomas York meanwhile urged the 11th Circuit to affirm, saying the claims are judicially barred since Rojas is a noncitizen who has already been deported.
“The government has discretion to execute on that final order of removal,” York said, adding the writ of habeas corpus guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution “does not cover the type of relief the petitioner is asking for.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum took issue with that argument.
“The government has discretion to execute the order of removal as long as it was not for an illegal reason,” the Obama appointee said. “There’s possibly an outrageous First Amendment scenario where there could be a problem. It seems to me there couldn’t be a situation that could be more outrageous than we have here.”
York also butted heads with the panel’s second Obama appointee, U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin.
“I just find it troubling that it seems that your position is we don’t have to adjudicate his claim because we can just go ahead and deport people and then their case is moot,” Martin said. “That just seems to me that can’t be right.”
Rojas out stayed his visa in 2000, making headlines in 2012 after immigration authorities detained him in a Broward County facility where he ultimately staged a hunger strike that led to his release. “The Infiltrators” centers around two activists who purposely turned themselves in to ICE to document the conditions at the facility that housed Rojas.
In the intervening years, Rojas had a pending application for a T visa, which allows victims of human rights abuses to stay in the United States and eventually gain a path to citizenship.
It was not until the publicity surrounding the release of “The Infiltrators” last year that ICE chose to arrest, detain and deport Rojas. Until his arrest and deportation, the 54-year-old routinely checked in with immigration officials and maintained a family in Miramar, a small city just north of Miami.
Das argued the government’s actions were based purely on Rojas’ exercise of his First Amendment rights and not any violation of immigration law.
“[The government] aggressively pursued the exile of a man that otherwise would be the lowest priority for deportation,” said Das.
The judges did not indicate when they will reach a decision in the case.