Immigrant Rights Clinic scores key victories in Supreme Court and federal district court

NYU Law's Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC) won major victories in two separate cases in the Southern District of New York and the Supreme Court.

On May 1, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York granted the habeas corpus petition of IRC client Higino Alejandro Garcia, overturning a ruling that applied mandatory detention to immigrants with old convictions.

"As a student it was an exciting experience to argue a case that can be used to help immigrants fight unlawful mandatory detention across the country," said Sarah Guggenheim-Deri '09, who, along with Kate Evans '09 and Anjali Bhargava '09, handled the case under the supervision of Professor of Clinical Law Nancy Morawetz ’81 and Alina Das ’05, an immigrant defense fellow. Bronx Defenders attorneys and IRC alumni Isaac Wheeler ’02 and Jennifer Friedman ’07 serve as co-counsel on the case.

Judge McMahon ruled in Garcia v. Shanahan that the mandatory detention law enacted in 1996 does not apply to immigrants with convictions from before the statute went into effect. The decision rejects a precedent decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals, which had found that mandatory detention applies as long as the immigrant passed through the criminal justice system after the 1996 law went into effect. 

Garcia was found deportable due to a conviction from 1989. He was taken into detention in 2008 after an unrelated arrest, for which the charges were dismissed. While in pretrial custody on those charges, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security determined that Garcia was not a citizen and that he had a felony drug conviction from 1989. They then rearrested him on the grounds that he was subject to non-reviewable mandatory detention. Judge McMahon's decision orders that an immigration judge provide Garcia with an individualized bond hearing within 10 days.

“Our victory acknowledges that ICE has been detaining people unlawfully and represents a significant step in ending this practice," Evans said.  

In another win for the IRC, on May 4 the Supreme Court decided in Flores-Figueroa v. United States, a case in which the IRC filed an amicus curiae brief, that the crime of aggravated identity theft, a serious charge with a mandatory two-year sentence, does not apply to immigrant workers who do not know that the false identification they are using belongs to a real person. The Court's unanimous decision repudiated prosecutorial strategies that were used by the last administration in massive workplace raids.

Working with the Supreme Court Immigration Law Working Group, which is chaired by Morawetz and composed of representatives from the leading immigrant rights organizations in the country, the IRC began work last fall on an amicus strategy in the case. IRC students Andrea Gittleman '09 and Sara Johnson '09 wrote an amicus brief that showed the consequences of the government's overly broad reading of the statute.  

"While we're pleased with the court's unanimous decision, we regret that it comes too late to prevent the unfair plea agreements and deportations like those we saw after the workplace raid in Postville, Iowa last year," Gittleman and Johnson said. "The Court's interpretation in Flores-Figueroa is a wholesale rejection of the Bush administration's position on aggravated identity theft and that administration's prosecutorial abuses. We are relieved that aggravated identity theft will no longer be used to prosecute unknowing immigrant workers."