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Unconstitutional Cowboys

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Federal agents are entering the homes of law abiding U.S. citizens and legal residents without search warrants. Let’s be clear—this is scary stuff.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, via “Operation Return to Sender,” has launched raids on homes across the country. In many cases, the raids appear to be unconstitutional fishing expeditions that target people because of their ethnicity, which is reminiscent of the post 9-11 round-ups of Arab Americans and Americans of South-Asian descent. Instead of hinting at potential Arab and Asian terrorist connections, which invariably vanished with a little investigation, federal agents now claim they are looking for Latino “gang members.” In fact, these raids appear to have little to do with gangs.

The New York Times reported this month on Peggy De La Rosa-Delgado, a U.S. citizen caught up in recent ICE raids in Long Island, New York. Her home was raided twice by federal agents looking for the same individual who, as far she knows, never lived at her address. ICE detained her family, pointed a gun at a family member, and made them all prove they had a legal right to live in the home she bought in 2003. De La Rosa-Delgado’s experience is not exceptional. Nassau County police involved in the raids say that despite entering dozens of homes, ICE only caught six of the 96 fugitives it was looking for.

The Bush administration supported recent attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform but is now working overtime to appease anti-immigrant and right wing groups who oppose immigration reform. A dramatic increase in the number of ICE raids is front and center in this appeasement. Given the ensuing chaos, hopefully this policy shift is not just an attempt to get right wing support for ICE chief Julie Meyers as she seeks Senate confirmation.

Whatever the case, ICE’s antics are threatening even to law enforcement. Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey and County Executive Thomas Suozzi blasted ICE and refused to work with the federal agency again. The police commissioner described out-of-control federal agents sporting cowboy hats who twice drew their guns on county police officers who were providing backup during the raids.

Mulvey also complained that despite ICE’s assurances that county police were helping find criminal fugitives, it quickly became clear that ICE was using this as a pretense to round up any undocumented immigrants it found once it entered homes. And ICE increased the likelihood it would raid the wrong homes when it refused to review up-to-date county police records that track the whereabouts of known gang members.

These raids raise serious civil rights concerns all over the country. The Idaho Statesman reported on the family of Dana Ayala, a U.S. citizen whose home in Wood River Valley, Idaho was raided last month. Ayala told the paper: “My 19-year-old son opened the door to see what was happening, and six agents armed with guns, Tasers and flashlights pushed their way into my home.” After detaining the family, ICE left when it found that everyone was legally allowed to reside in the United States.

This matches the experience of the Leon-Aguilar family in East Hampton, New York. Their home was raided by ICE in February of this year, despite the fact that everyone in the home was a U.S. citizen or legal resident. The family sued alleging that:

The modus operandi of “Operation Return to Sender” is to have teams of six to  ten armed ICE agents raid homes of Latinos without court-issued search warrants and to do so in a manner that will obtain entry to the targeted homes without providing the occupants an opportunity to consent or refuse entry.

When raiding homes, ICE often claims they are looking for criminals, but usually they are trying to find people who have overstayed a visa, which is typically a civil, not a criminal, violation. As a result, ICE agents seldom carry search or arrest warrants signed by a judge, and thus they have no right to enter or search our homes.

Instead, they typically carry documents they call “administrative warrants,” which do little more than identify the people for whom they say they are looking. Judges issuing real warrants, under the Fourth Amendment, require law enforcement officers to show probable cause a crime has been committed and that the home to be entered is where the alleged criminal can be found.

To be safe and left alone in our homes is so American that our Constitution has protected this right since 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified. As the Senate considers confirmation of Julie Meyers over the next month, it should seriously ponder whether her leadership of ICE over the last year has undermined a fundamental principle enshrined by the Founding Fathers in our Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . .

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy.

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