Thursday, October 27, 2011

Two New Lawsuits Shed Light on Immigrant Injustice in the States

On the same day last week two major non-profit organizations filed suit in the US over fairly shocking circumstances relating to immigrants and refugees. If they win, we could see some excellent new case law on immigrant rights. Here's a quick run-down.

Florida Tuition Inequality
In Ruiz v. Robinson (complaint) the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Florida Board of Education for a policy that, according to the suit, "treat[s] United States citizen students who reside in Florida as “non-residents” solely because their parents are undocumented immigrants." The effect of this policy is to hike tuition prices up to out-of-state rates (i.e., triple the cost for residents), and moreover, to discourage children of undocumented immigrants from attending college. Here's an example of the effect of the policy, as seen through plaintiff Caroline Roa:
...After Caroline was accepted to Miami Dade College, school officials informed her that she did not qualify for in-state tuition, even though she had resided in Miami-Dade County since birth. School officials explained to Caroline that her residency for tuition purposes was based on her father’s legal residence. Because Caroline could not show proof of her father’s legal immigration presence in the United States, she could not qualify for in-state tuition rates. Unable to afford non-resident tuition rates, Caroline has not enrolled in college. Instead, she works two jobs in the hope of one day being able to afford college.
Interestingly, the class action suit takes a dual legal track- SPLC challenges the policy under the 14th amendment's equal protection clause, but they also bring a federal preemption claim under the Supremacy Clause. In other words, they argue Florida's attempts to deny residency to the children of undocumented immigrants represents an impermissible attempt to regulate immigration- a field squarely within the exclusive domain of the federal government.

In my opinion, the equal protection argument is a slam dunk- these children are clearly being treated differently then other similarly situated children on the basis of their parent's immigration status... its going to be difficult for Florida to come up with a compelling justification for that which makes logical sense. The federal preemption argument, on the other hand, is a touchy subject. It has been a bumpy road for cases using this claim before, and now more than ever, with so many pending challenges to state statutes regulating immigration in some way, it will be interesting to see how the argument fares. One could suspect this case makes the point clearly, that when states try to regulate immigration they end up doing things that hurt citizens as well as non-citizens.

Sex Abuse in Immigration Detention
The second case is being brought by the ACLU against a Texas corrections facility, workers there, and the ICE for allegations of sexual assault against immigrants detained there. (Oy.) Essentially, the ACLU found hundreds of such allegations after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with ICE and Homeland Security. Although such allegations were found in every state, Texas had by far the most, and is thus the focus of the suit. An example of one of the stories can be found here. (Warning: graphic.)

Even more tragically, the plaintiffs named in the suit were asylum seekers escaping sexual violence in their home countries. It is ridiculous that people have to face this additional hardship in detention centers and it is obviously a violation of their human rights and basic tort law. I think this case will have no problem succeeding, but it remains to be seen how to protect the thousands of immigrants in custody all over the US from such horror. One way may be a legislative angle- extending the Prison Rape Elimination Act to immigrant detainees. The Act, passed by President Bush in 2003, establishes a national commission to prevent prison rape, assists with data sharing, and makes prevention a major priority for each prison system-- except for in immigration detention.

Here is a petition from the ACLU to President Obama asking them, as a first step, to extend the Prison Rape Elimination Act to all prisoners in the US: "President Obama: Protect Women Held in US Custody from Rampant Sexual Abuse"

What these two cases have in common is that they focus on rather non-contentious ways of preventing discrimination against immigrants. After all, the first case actually focuses on US citizens (though it arguably helps their undocumented parents), and the second reiterates a minimum standard for detention that should not even really be at issue, bodily integrity. There are much deeper problems facing the  American immigration system at the moment, but these two cases will hopefully be big wins that pave the way for more aggressive strategies in the fight to protect undocumented immigrants.

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