ATLANTA (CN) - The Southern Poverty Law Center claims in court that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials entered the homes of immigrant families without warrants, consent or probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The nonprofit filed the federal complaint in Atlanta on Monday on behalf of three families it says were caught up in a targeted sweep of immigrants -- Operation Border Resolve -- from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in January 2016.
According to the complaint, customs agents showed up at the families' homes claiming to be police searching for criminal suspects.
During the "search," the law center says, agents threatened to arrest anyone who refused to cooperate in order to get inside the homes.
In two other raids, the lawsuit says, agents showed families a photo of a black man they claimed to be searching for, and then, only once inside the homes, identified themselves as ICE agents.
The families, who were in the country legally, were then seized for detention and deportation, the complaint says.
In 2016 the Southern Poverty Law Center released a lengthy report in which it criticized the Obama administration and its Department of Homeland Security for pursuing a "needlessly aggressive – and potentially unconstitutional – law enforcement action against vulnerable immigrants."
But in the past year, the nonprofit says, the situation has gotten worse. Since taking office, it says, the Trump administration has dramatically stepped up enforcement efforts, arresting 111,000 people between Jan. 20, 2017 and Sept. 30, 2017.
The Department of Homeland Security said that figure is a 42 percent increase over the previous year.
The sweeps that are the subject of the lawsuit resulted in the arrest of 121 people, all of whom were transported to an immigration detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
In a statement, Lisa Graybill, the Southern Poverty Law Center's legal director, said "The safety of home and the freedom from unlawful searches and seizures are among America’s most fundamental values, and law enforcement officials at all levels are legally required to protect these constitutional rights."
But in the cases at the heart of the lawsuit, Graybill said "ICE agents preyed upon vulnerable families using fear and lies to improperly enter homes — without cause — and detain people who were legally present in the U.S."
The law center filed its complaint in cooperation with Bradley Banias of Barnwell, Whaley, Patterson & Helms in Charleston, South Carolina.
They seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of the families.
"ICE does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy so we’re not going to comment specifically on the suit," said Bryan Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"In general, I'll say that ICE conducts enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy," he continued. "Officers receive regular training to ensure agency practices are compliant with those policies as well as the Fourth Amendment.
"Also, absence of comment on the lawsuit itself should in no way be taken to mean ICE thinks the suit has any merit," Cox said.
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