Dirk Perrefort, Staff Writer (www.newstimes.com)
Published: 09:47 a.m., Thursday, March 25, 2010
DANBURY — A federal judge has ruled that the men known as the Danbury 11 not be required to divulge their immigration status as part of their civil rights lawsuit against the city.
While attorneys for the city claimed the status was “at the heart of the case,” the judge cited previous case law when she ruled that handing over the information would have a “chilling” effect on other immigrants seeking to enforce their civil rights.
“We are gratified, but not surprised, because this order follows a long line of cases saying the courts should be open to everyone,” said Rebecca Heller, a law student with the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services organization at Yale Law School, which is representing the immigrants.
“People should not have to face harassment and deportation in order to vindicate their civil rights in federal court,” Heller said.
The Danbury 11 is a group of day laborers who were arrested in Danbury and turned over to immigration agents in September 2006 during a sting operation involving local police officers.
The lawsuit filed by the day laborers claims that local police don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration law and that the officers used racial profiling when a local undercover officer picked them up at Kennedy Park.
“The judge magistrate’s decision seems correct to me, because it’s obvious what the defendants were doing that got them into court in the first place was unlawful,” said John Williams, a prominent civil rights lawyer in the state.
“The judge has said they (the city) can’t throw up a smokescreen and try to divert the jury from that reality,” he said. “The judge saw through the frivolous nature of this defense and will make the defendants act like adults instead of politicians.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez said in her March 19 decision that the day laborers’ immigration status is not relevant to whether the city is allowed to enforce federal law.
She also noted that whether the local police officers “had a lawful basis for the detention and or arrest of the (day laborers) depends on what the officers knew at the time they detained” the immigrants.
Martinez said the day laborers’ immigration status is not relevant to whether officers had probable cause.
Wilson Hernandez, a former president of the Ecuadorian Civic Center in Danbury who has been closely following the case, said the judge’s decision sends a message to other immigrants who believe their rights are being violated.
“They can feel confident that they can go to the authorities if they feel their rights have been violated,” Hernandez said. “Otherwise, they would feel too intimidated to report anything.”
It’s out of fear of being deported, Hernandez said, that more than three-quarters of immigrants fail to report cases of abuse.
“They are afraid they won’t get the help they need or will be punished for going to the authorities if someone is taking advantage of them,” he said.
Local immigration attorney Michael Boyle said the city’s attempts to gain access to the day laborers’ immigration status amounts to a fishing expedition and a scare tactic that is often used in hope the plaintiffs will drop their case.
He added that, in general, most federal judges don’t like to encourage such fishing expeditions.
“It’s a very positive decision,” Boyle said. “But I think for the city of Danbury it astounds me that this case continues to go on forever.”
Mayor Mark Boughton, a five-term Republican seeking his party’s nomination in the gubernatorial race, has made national headlines in the past concerning immigration issues. He declined to comment specifically on this case because the matter remains pending.
Dan Casagranda, the local attorney handling the case for the city, could not be reached for comment in several attempts Wednesday.
Contact Dirk Perrefort