GREENBELT, Md. (CN) – Immigration advocates expressed cautious optimism Monday after a judge in Maryland blocked federal agents from detaining immigrant spouses for deportation at green card marriage interviews.
U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel, a Barack Obama appointee, issued an injunction on Friday that immediately prohibited federal immigration officers in Maryland from using the marriage interviews to arrest or deport undocumented immigrants.
“This ruling is absolutely fantastic and exactly what we hoped for when it comes to relief for all of these families —all of whom deserve a chance to go through the legalization process,” Nick Steiner, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said in a phone interview Monday.
Under current U.S. immigration policies, Steiner said, an undocumented immigrant who is married to an American citizen has the right to apply for legal status through a six-step process— even spouses who have a deportation order looming over their heads.
The legalization process for those couples begins with paperwork and a marriage interview, but Maryland’s chapter of the ACLU claimed in a lawsuit that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wrongfully used the interviews to identify, arrest and deport the noncitizen spouse when they arrived.
The ACLU of Maryland filed a class action last August on behalf of six named plaintiffs, calling ICE’s deportation and detainment practice a “cruel bait and switch” strategy, which Steiner says uses immigrants’ own legal protections against them.
Two of the plaintiffs were detained after arriving to marriage interviews, while the remaining four plaintiffs in the case were too scared to show up for interviews after their immigration attorneys informed them ICE was arresting undocumented immigrants when they came to argue their case.
A provisional unlawful presence waiver was expanded in 2016 to allow Americans and their spouses who have been living in the country illegally to apply for a deportation waiver while going through the marriage process.
The ACLU says ICE is breaking its own rule. Judge Hazel sided with the plaintiffs and barred the agency from deporting Maryland residents who have started the process to obtain legal immigration status based on their marriage to a U.S. citizen.
“This order is in the public interest because it requires Respondents to comport with their own rules and regulations, bars arbitrary agency action toward vulnerable immigrant communities, and diminishes the emotional and financial impact on families participating in the provisional waiver process,” the 15-page opinion states.
Steiner told Courthouse News that the marriage process takes years to complete and current immigration laws allow applicants to stay in the U.S. while the paperwork is pending so as not to cause long term family separation.
“This is why it is so important,” he said. “The U.S. immigration law allows applicants who are married to citizens to remain inside the U.S. for the most part, reducing the hardships that come with extended family separation like financial aspects and child care.”
Hazel’s order on Friday also requires ICE to release anyone currently in detention who had been detained before they could complete the first step of the marriage process, according to Steiner.
While the injunction is considered a victory for Maryland’s immigrant population, the practice is still happening elsewhere in the U.S., according to Steiner. It is being challenged on a state-by-state and jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.
“All of the people in this class have been ordered removed and some people might say ‘well, they did not come here legally, so they should be deported,’ but our government and immigration laws rightfully create a pathway for those with significant ties to the community,” Steiner said.
Because of Hazel’s ruling, Steiner said Maryland couples can now show up to marriage interviews without fear of being arrested or deported.
Like Steiner, human rights attorney Juhu Thukral expressed cautious optimism over Friday’s injunction.
“This ruling was definitely a step forward, but not a total solution concerning all of the issues with our immigration systems,” she said in a phone interview. “ Unfortunately our legal system is so complicated, and it entails jumping through many hoops for people who simply want to live and contribute to their communities. We need a much more clear roadmap to citizenship.”
Thukral added that the Trump administration is “curtailing access to due process” despite a majority of Americans supporting a fair process for everyone.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it does not comment on pending litigation.
Former Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, but Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was automatically substituted in the case when he was appointed to the position last November.