In 2007, the New Haven City Council and mayor agreed to adopt the first municipal ID card in the nation. The move sparked fierce backlash from federal immigration authorities. Forty-eight hours after the Board of Alders approved the new ID cards, ICE conducted the largest raid in the history of the state, sweeping across immigrant neighborhoods, kicking in doors and arresting 32 people. For more on how the community fought back against the illegal raid, we speak with Michael Wishnie, clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, where he oversees the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Michael Wishnie in here from Yale Law School. You actually told a very important story at the conference yesterday about a battle that occurred 10 years ago under the Obama administration in terms of ICE and attempts to punish a city for becoming more welcoming to immigrants. I’m wondering if you could talk about that.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Sure. Actually, it was the Bush administration, though, I should say.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m sorry, the Bush administration.
MICHAEL WISHNIE: So, in the city of New Haven in 2006, community organizations, working with students at the law school, developed a set of proposals for policies to make New Haven more welcoming and to improve police-civilian relationships, especially in high immigrant neighborhoods. One of the recommendations from the community was that the city adopt a general-purpose municipal identification card, available to any resident who wanted one. In the spring of 2007, the mayor proposed, and the City Council, which we call the Board of Alders, overwhelmingly approved, the nation’s first general-purpose municipal ID program.
Forty-eight hours after the vote in City Council, in June of 2007, ICE conducted the largest raid, we believe, in the history of our state. They came in, in the predawn hours. They amassed a force of all federal agents they could find from different agencies all over the state. They swept into Fair Haven, which is a heavily Latino neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, going door to door, apartment to apartment, kicking down doors, pushing their way in, without warrants, without consent. They arrested 32 people in all—parents getting up in the morning, preparing to go to work, to take their children to school. Later, ICE claimed that they were looking for particular dangerous fugitive criminal aliens. But it turned out, of course, that of the 32 people they arrested, almost all of them had never before encountered immigration. They were just bystanders who happened to be living in an apartment where ICE thought someone used to be, or the apartment upstairs or the house next door.
This was a terrifying moment, most of all for the families, but for the community as a whole. But the community rallied. ICE scattered the 32 people in jails around New England—in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine—trying to hide them. But we were able to find 31 of the 32 people. And the students in the clinic offered representation to 30 of them. Remarkably, all 30 of those people came home. We were able to get bond set by the courts. The community raised the money to post bond. And in the first mass raid of its time this had ever happened, people came home. They came back to their families. They came back to their communities. And they had an opportunity to decide whether to fight their deportation cases and to tell stories of what had happened. Well, in the end, most of the people decided to fight their cases. A few decided to—not to. And of those who fought their deportation cases, every single one of them won, with one exception, a case that’s still pending now in federal court in New York. But everybody else persuaded the immigration judges—excuse me— to dismiss their cases based on ICE’s illegal and retaliatory raid against the city of New Haven.
But that wasn’t all. The community groups went to court in six state and federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, and they obtained the email traffic and the planning documents that showed ICE was secretly and actively plotting to try to stifle the municipal ID card. They didn’t like it. They wanted to stop it. And when they couldn’t stop the city, they took retaliation on a group of households in one neighborhood. Well, once we obtained those records and shared them with the public, many of those arrested then brought a civil rights action in federal court against ICE for Fourth Amendment violations, for racial profiling, for retaliating against the city of New Haven. And ICE settled that lawsuit by paying $350,000 to people who had been arrested, and offering a menu of immigration relief. Different individuals could choose different items. So the net result of this action was that two people were deported, ICE paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to those who had been wrongfully arrested, and everyone’s case was dismissed or they secured relief—again, with this one exception that we’re still in court on.
And just to close the story, this raid happened two days after the City Council vote. At that time, the card—the municipal ID card program had not begun, of course. And after the raids, Mayor DeStefano, who was mayor, asked the community whether he should delay the ID card program, whether to actually implement it would simply provoke more immigration raids, more retaliation, more unlawful activity. And he didn’t want to harm the community. But the community groups who had led the fight—Junta for Progressive Action, Unidad Latina en Acción—they said, “No, you should go forward. People will still come out. This is still a useful program.” And in July, about two months after the raid, the card program launched.
And I didn’t know if anyone was going to come. But I still remember vividly, the first day, people came early in the morning. They lined up outside of City Hall, standing in line, dressed for work, dressed for school. The next day, the line was even longer. And by the third day, it snaked out of City Hall and around the block, hundreds of people standing in line at 7:00 in the morning, waiting for nothing more than a small piece of paper, laminated, that said, “I’m a person. I live in New Haven.”
So I’m sorry to hear the account of what’s happening in Texas and in Austin right now. I’ve been in touch with civil rights lawyers in Austin who have learned from our experience and learned how the community responded and how the lawyers supported that community response. I hope it doesn’t come to that point in Austin. I hope that there can be a resolution that protects community and public safety. But if not, we hope there may be some lessons to be drawn from our experience here in New Haven.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’m wondering, just briefly, if you could tell us—this was actually, clearly, an illegal operation by the federal government 10 years ago. You have made the point that a lot of what’s coming out of the Trump administration in terms of retribution against sanctuary cities is itself illegal and that the cities are acting legally. Could you briefly talk about that?
MICHAEL WISHNIE: Yes, just briefly. I mean, at some level, reading Attorney General Sessions’ comments yesterday, I just thought, “These are the guys who can’t shoot straight.” They put out this report last week about cities that they say are not in compliance with laws. One of the cities they listed in their report last week was the city of East Haven, Connecticut, right next door to New Haven. East Haven does have a policy limiting information sharing, limiting arrests, prohibiting detainer enforcement. And last week they were listed as one of these targeted jurisdictions, I guess, for loss of funding.
The thing, though, is that East Haven has those policies because of a consent decree that they are subject to, that the U.S. Department of Justice approved. They have a set of policies that prohibit enforcement of detainers and prohibit information sharing with ICE, that the Department of Justice signed off on and approved, and they’re under court order. And now the Department of Justice wants to take millions of dollars away from their police because they went along with a Department of Justice-approved court decree? Other cities have followed East Haven and have adopted the same policies, that the U.S. Department of Justice has approved as lawful.
So, you know, these guys think that they know better than local police departments and sheriff departments what constitutes public safety. But they are seeking to deprive local jurisdictions of dollars based on policies that are lawful as adopted by the local jurisdictions, and in a manner, at the federal level, that is plainly unlawful. And I regret that it will take, perhaps, years of litigation to establish that, and there will be stress and pain in the interim. But I don’t think the federal government will succeed in depriving local cities of police money, because those cities are following the Constitution.