- Class-action suit brought by Adriana Leon requires ICE to change policy on home raids
- Agents had stormed into Latino homes in middle of night, pulling people out of bed
- Leon: ICE agents terrified families and did not have permission or warrants
- Leon: ICE must be held to the same legal standards as everyone else to avoid abuses
In the cold, predawn hours of February 20, 2007, shortly after 4 a.m., armed men stormed into the home I owned with my family and burst into my bedroom, shouting at me to show my hands.
My husband had left for work, and our 4-year-old son began to cry with fright. I stumbled out of bed in my nightclothes to the family living area, terrified and confused. Two armed men were coming upstairs from our basement, having searched it without permission, and others were demanding that we tell them the location of my ex-husband, with whom I had not lived for several years. As I had reported to the immigration service on my daughters' citizenship applications, I had been remarried for four years.
The men acted as if they had the right to be in our home, but we knew to ask questions: Who were they? Did they have a warrant? They refused to identify themselves or show a warrant, and they put their hands on their guns when we tried to move.
They interrogated my 12-year-old daughter and ordered my brother, a U.S. citizen since he was a teenager, to produce his papers. That's when I realized the men were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. When they left, they threatened to return.
The same scene was happening all over New York: Armed agents surrounding homes, pounding on doors and windows, ordering residents to open the door and storming in, sometimes damaging doors and walls, sometimes pointing guns as they entered.
It didn't seem to matter to the agents whether they found the person they were looking for or if frightened people in the home could not produce papers. The agents arrested people even if they hadn't been a target. The ICE agents had no judicial warrants; instead, they claimed that the rudely awakened men, women and sometimes children in the homes had provided consent.
We decided to sue and discovered that ICE had embarked on a nationwide program of warrantless immigration sweeps with names such as "Return to Sender" and "Community Shield" to invade private homes in search of undocumented immigrants.
Last week, more than six years and many court battles later, our class-action suit Aguilar v ICE, which included 22 New York men, women and children, was settled in Federal District Court for a million dollars.
ICE has also been required to change national training and policy to conform with existing law to avoid further abuses from home raids. We are proud of this accomplishment, even though we know that home raid operations have continued in the Obama era, most notably in Tennessee and Alabama, where Latinos report ICE engaging in the very same unconstitutional behavior that traumatized my family.
During those raids in 2006 and 2007, thousands of terrified people, mostly Latino, were pulled out of bed. ICE claimed it was looking for people not suspected of a crime, but merely those in violation of civil immigration laws.
Although ICE was supposedly seeking fugitives -- people who may have evaded a deportation order -- most of the people they arrested had never had any encounter with the agency before. They were arrested because many ICE agents were operating under a quota policy that gave credit for arrests of any undocumented person, not just the target.
Citizens and lawful permanent residents like us were not immune; if ICE had an old address for someone they were looking for, that address was fair game.
In the home of three of the other people in our case, ICE knew it had already deported the person it were seeking. But agents invaded anyway, storming inside after a 12-year-old girl opened the door in her pajamas. ICE invaded the home of another family in our case twice in little more than a year, because when agents didn't find their target the first time, they didn't bother to record the mistake.
It seemed that being Latino, and nothing more, was enough to arouse suspicion. ICE declined to enter the homes of white residents who opened their doors in shock. Latino men and women were handcuffed before they were even asked about their status, and some agents even admitted to using the derogatory word "wet" to describe the Latinos they encountered.
I studied the U.S. Constitution in order to naturalize. I knew that the government is not supposed to enter your home without a warrant or handcuff you only because you are Latino. But that night in 2007, and in the months after, I lost a sense of hope in our government's ability to make its own agents obey the law.
The fact that ICE has agreed to some changes helps me regain that hope.
As the country debates immigration reform and enforcement, we owe it to ourselves to hold ICE's leaders and agents accountable and to make sure that they are subject to the same laws as everyone else.
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