PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Four federal officials deserve immunity from claims over allegedly abusive immigration raids conducted under the “Operation Return to Sender” program, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
Nine Latinos in New Jersey filed the 2008 lawsuit, claiming that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with four officials, engaged in a “practice of unlawful and abusive raids of immigrant homes across the state of New Jersey … under a nationwide program instituted by the Department of Homeland Security known as ‘Operation Return to Sender’.”
The complaint says the program was established in 2002 “to arrest and remove so-called immigration fugitives.” Every Fugitive Operation Team in the nation had to arrest 1,000 fugitive aliens per year, according to the complaint.
But, “despite the supposed purposes of the operation itself, the majority of individuals arrested in New Jersey under Operation Return to Sender are neither criminals or fugitives,” the plaintiffs claimed. In fact, 87 percent of the people arrested through the raids in 2007 had no criminal history, and just one in three arrestees was “actually a fugitive alien.”
The plaintiffs claimed that “unlawful and abusive raids flourished as a predictable consequence” of the increased quotas. They claim the raids often occurred in predawn hours and involved deception, which they claim is the result of supervisors failing to “develop meaningful guidelines or oversight mechanisms to ensure that home searches were conducted in a constitutional fashion.”
A federal judge refused to dismiss the action in May 2009, specifically denying immunity for and upholding claims against four Washington-based supervisory federal officials. By January 2010, the judge agreed to toss one equal-protection claim against one defendant.
On appeal, a three-judge panel concluded that that the plaintiffs have failed to allege that the officials “actually adopted a facially unconstitutional policy.”
“It is uncontested that a government official is liable only for his or her own conduct and accordingly must have had some sort of personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional conduct,” Judge Robert Cowen wrote for the unanimous court.
The judges emphasized that their ruling “does not leave Plaintiffs without any legal remedy for the alleged violation of the United States Constitution.” But the plaintiffs never proved that the officials in question ever ordered agents to storm into homes without obtaining the requisite consent, according to the ruling.
The complaint also cited evidence of “numerous ICE agents at different raids executed across the country over a period of years” and “did not plausibly allege that the Appellants had legally sufficient notice of the underlying unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates,” Cowen wrote.
Furthermore, the plaintiffs “did not really identify in their pleading what exactly Appellants should have done differently, whether with respect to training programs or other matters, that would have prevented the unconstitutional conduct,” Cowen concluded, remanding the case for further proceedings.
The plaintiffs say their case is just one of multiple federal lawsuits that have been filed across the country in response to the government’s “nationwide pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct.”