As people in Bend formed a human roadblock to stop immigration arrests on Wednesday, a nonprofit legal aid group was working furiously to file a lawsuit against the federal government.
On Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge allowed the case to moved ahead, while shooting down the group’s initial request for a total restraining order against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which would have forced the agency to keep two detained men from Bend within Oregon while the case is open.
But even before the hearing, it was too late for that — Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who are overseen by DHS, had already transferred the men to a holding facility in Tacoma, Washington. The out-of-state transfer came after a spontaneous protest in Bend delayed the ICE operation, culminating in a late-night standoff with Border Patrol agents where people were pepper sprayed.
Leading up to that, Marco Rios, 32, and Josue Sanchez, 34, were locked inside an unmarked bus driven by ICE contractors for at least 12 hours, according to a timeline provided by a spokesperson for the men’s families. For much of that time, the wives and children of the men stood outside the bus, often in tears, communicating with Rios and Sanchez by pressing themselves against the metal sides and shouting through closed windows. Advocates and protesters who joined the families pleaded with ICE officials throughout the ordeal to provide food, water and access to legal counsel.
The complaint by Innovation Law Lab against DHS officials claims that “the federal government’s unlawful denial of attorney access … contravenes not only our laws, but also fundamental constitutional rights and Oregon’s basic values.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice Austin Rice-Stitt spoke for DHS at a hearing held by conference call Thursday. Rice-Stitt argued that the government did not violate the men’s constitutional rights by not allowing them to speak to an attorney before a transfer across state lines, comparing the process to being in a police car before being booked in a typical jail.
Judge Karin Immergut asked him why the men were sent to Tacoma, instead of NORCOR, a jail facility ICE contracts to use in Oregon.
“Everyone who is detained in this situation in the entire region … they’re all sent to Tacoma,” Rice-Stitt said, adding: “Even if they were brought down to NORCOR, they’re currently restricting in-person meetings there, due to the pandemic.”
Immigration detention facilities across the country have become hot spots for COVID-19, and people held in Tacoma have filed a lawsuit claiming unsafe conditions there.
“Had we been given the access to which Innovation Law Lab was entitled to, on the ground in Bend last night, these individuals wouldn’t be in Tacoma,” argued Nadia Dahab, an attorney with the Portland-based nonprofit behind the lawsuit.
Dahab argued that ICE officials prevented attorneys from speaking with the men, which she said squashed their ability to file a request for release, before being sent hundreds of miles from home. She said it’s important that they are in the state so her group can represent them, and that even with the bus between them, a volunteer attorney with the group got consent to represent the men during the Bend protest.
“They could have been released on the spot if we had been allowed to provide meaningful representation at that time,” Dahab said.
The judge said she had “serious questions” about Innovation Law Lab’s legal standing to bring the case but would allow the case to move ahead. Immergut was not open to debating where the men should be held.
“The plaintiff has not satisfied its burden to show that defendants did something wrong, or even out of the ordinary honestly. ... I wouldn’t typically micromanage where they would take individual undocumented immigrants,” she said.
Immergut told the government’s attorney she expected the men to remain in the country and for them not be deported while the case is active. She set a preliminary injunction hearing for the first week of September.
Rice-Stitt said he didn’t think there was any time pressure on holding the men. He repeated several times that Rios and Sanchez have criminal records, and that their arrest was part of a targeted operation.
ICE spokesperson Tanya Roman said the men have been convicted in the past on charges of assault, harassment, coercion and criminal trespassing.
“They are also repeat immigration violators who were previously encountered by U.S. immigration officials and granted voluntary return to their home countries,” Roman said in a statement.
Meanwhile, advocates for the men have scorned attempts to vilify them, saying they are longtime community members who are being denied due process by federal overreach.
Organizers from the nonprofit Latino Community Association of Central Oregon spoke at a press conference Thursday, relaying a joint message from the families of Rio and Sanchez.
“The way they removed our husbands, wasn’t right.” the translator said.
Oregon Gov Kate Brown signaled her agreement online Thursday.
“I am appalled by the callous actions of the Trump Administration yesterday in Bend to target immigrant communities and forcefully disperse a crowd of concerned community members and clergy who for hours held the line against injustice,” Brown tweeted.