Three days after the feds arrested Josemaria Islas and began the process of sending him back to Mexico, the New Havener secured “a minor triumph.”
Islas (pictured), an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, has become a cause celebre for immigrant advocates as he fights deportation stemming from what he calls a wrongful arrest based on a mistaken identity. He won temporary relief Thursday, when federal immigration judge Philip Verrillo issued a temporary stay on deportation proceedings against him.
Verrillo is now considering a last-minute motion by Islas’s lawyer, Danielle Briand, to stay deportation and reopen the case. Her argument, which she described as “novel,” is that the punishment of deportation is not proportionate to the crime of entering the country “without lawful admission.”
Lawyers for the federal Department of Homeland Security now have 15 days to respond to Briand’s motion.
Islas’ case started with a July 2, 2012, arrest in Hamden on robbery charges. Islas and his supporters say he was wrongfully arrested, a victim of mistaken identity. The case against him was very weak and he took a deal to walk free after months in jail awaiting a decision. But before he could leave, judicial marshals handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which had issued a request to detain him under its controversial Secure Communities program.
According to ICE, Secure Communities targets immigrants who are a clear threat to public safety—terrorists, violent criminals, gang members. Critics of the program say it’s used unfairly and undermines relations between immigrants and local law enforcement.
Islas had no criminal record, but ICE says he is a repeat offender of immigration laws, having been caught several times trying to cross into the United States.
Islas’ detention by ICE became a rallying point for immigration activists. He received support from local and federal elected officials who petitioned the head of ICE to reconsider his case.
Judge Verrillo nevertheless in February ordered Islas deported. He was arrested on Monday by ICE.
Briand had 90 days to make an appeal after the judge’s February ruling but just got her motion in under the wire. She said she learned only recently of a new argument that immigration lawyers have begun to make, one that she could make on Islas’ behalf.
“We argued that it was a violation of his 5th and 8th Amendment rights that the judge didn’t conduct a proportionality review,” Briand said. “There was no analysis made that the penalty of removal was proportional to the underlying immigration offense.”
The proportionality argument for immigration cases was first authored by Yale law school Professor Mike Wishnie, said Briand.
Islas has “so many roots” in Connecticut, including family and community connections and a job he’s held for four years at a factory in Hamden, Briand said. It doesn’t make sense to “disrupt his life and take that away from him,” she argued.
What’s more, Congress is closing in on comprehensive immigration law reform, she said. “He would be a beneficiary of the legalization program that’s right now being proposed.”
Briand said Judge Verrillo’s decision to stay deportation was discretionary; he wasn’t required to halt deportation proceedings. “That’s why I consider it a minor triumph, maybe a major triumph.”
If Verrillo rules against Briand’s motion, she said she intends to file an appeal.
“We’re going to keep on fighting this deportation until the end,” said Megan Fountain, an activist who has been organizing on Islas’ behalf. “There are so many people who are supporting the case, so many leaders in Connecticut who are supporting the case, that it’s really a question of ICE looking at how the times are changing and looking at the direction Connecticut is heading in.” Fountain pointed out that the Connecticut house just passed both the TRUST act and a bill that would allow immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.
Fountain and others are planning a demonstration in support of Islas at 9 a.m. on Friday at the federal building on Court Street in New Haven.
Meanwhile, Islas remains incarcerated in the Bristol County House of Corrections in Dartmouth, Mass.