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Connecticut Agrees to Far-Reaching Limits on Participation in Federal Immigration Enforcement Program

Almost exactly one year after federal authorities activated the controversial Secure Communities program across the state of Connecticut, immigrants’ rights advocates are announcing the settlement of a lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) regarding a key aspect of the Secure Communities program. The settlement will drastically limit the number of Connecticut residents handed over to federal immigration authorities for the next four years.

With this policy, DOC has become the first statewide agency in the country to resist the immigration detainer scheme at the heart of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) Secure Communities program, which has been heavily criticized for leading to the deportation of thousands of individuals with no or minimal criminal history. As a result of the policy, the number of Connecticut residents turned over by DOC for deportation has already plummeted by approximately 70%.

Sergio Brizuela, a 33-year-old resident of East Haven, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit, Brizuela v. Feliciano, in February 2012 after DOC unlawfully detained him and transferred him to ICE custody. At that time, it was DOC policy to honor requests from ICE to detain individuals even after they posted bail or served their sentences in order to facilitate transfer to ICE custody for deportation. These requests, known as “immigration detainers,” are not warrants and do not lawfully authorize detention. In response to Mr. Brizuela’s lawsuit and community pressure challenging the policy, DOC committed to conducting a case-by-case review of each person who has been issued an immigration detainer and releasing those who do not meet certain public dangerousness criteria.

“It was terrible—the anguish and uncertainty I felt when I was kept away from my baby son and my family here in Connecticut for months,” explained Mr. Brizuela, who is married to a lawful permanent resident of the United States and is the father of a U.S.-citizen child. “Because of the immigration detainer, I was not released when my wife came to post bail, or when the charge against me was resolved in court. Instead I was held for immigration. I don’t want others to have to go through what I went through.”

DOC’s policy, which has been substantially in place for some months now while the lawsuit was pending, has already led to fewer deportations of Connecticut residents. In 2011, DOC turned approximately 33 individuals over to ICE each month. Now that DOC is conducting its case-by-case assessment, it is turning over fewer than 10 people to ICE each month; this amounts to a 70% decrease in the number of Connecticut residents turned over to ICE each month.

The Obama Administration touts the Secure Communities program as targeting the worst of the worst, but law enforcement and immigrants’ rights advocates criticize the program for sweeping people with little or no criminal history, such as Mr. Brizuela, into the deportation dragnet. The Malloy Administration and Mayors John DeStefano of New Haven and Pedro Segarra of Hartford have been vocal critics of Secure Communities because the program undermines trust in local law enforcement and breaks up families and communities. With this settlement, DOC joins law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions—including San Francisco, California; Santa Clara County, California (San Jose); Cook County, Illinois (Chicago); and Washington D.C.—in implementing policies to resist detention for federal authorities under Secure Communities. The DOC policy is the first statewide measure to limit the detention of residents for transfer to ICE.

“Immigration detainers are the linchpin of the Secure Communities program. Without them, the program cannot function,” said Matthew Vogel, a law student intern at Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, which represents Mr. Brizuela. “With this settlement, Connecticut joins communities across the country that are taking commonsense steps to protect their residents and families by limiting the number of people detained and transferred to ICE on the basis of an immigration detainer.”

The settlement between Mr. Brizuela and DOC, filed yesterday in federal court in New Haven, ensures that DOC’s case-by-case review policy will remain in place for at least four years. In addition, DOC will provide notice, in English and Spanish, to every individual in its custody for whom it receives an immigration detainer and to every individual DOC decides to hold for ICE. The notice will also provide a toll-free number for individuals to call if they believe they are being improperly detained under the policy. DOC will provide data to Mr. Brizuela’s lawyers on a monthly basis regarding all inmates held or released under the policy.

Although the new policy is a significant step forward, it is only a start, as some Connecticut residents may still be detained and turned over to ICE pursuant to immigration detainers. “The settlement does not reach Connecticut’s Judicial Marshals or its local police agencies, which will continue to indiscriminately detain Connecticut residents for ICE, because they are not part of DOC,” explains Ana María Rivera Forastieri, Legal and Policy Analyst at Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven community organization. “Legislative action is needed to ensure that the Judicial Marshals and local police adopt policies limiting the effectiveness of immigration detainers in Connecticut.”