In a decision praised by civil rights groups, a federal judge has imposed tougher standards on Immigration and Naturalization Service agents trying to seize illegal aliens at Northern California work sites.
The effect of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Aguilar is still unclear because the court, based in San Jose, has jurisdiction only in an area from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. But lawyers for Latino workers and labor unions say the ruling--which requires the INS to more thoroughly document and investigate suspects before raiding a work site--provides a new standard by which to challenge INS raids nationwide.
"This is a very significant ruling. It sets down a new legal doctrine as to how and when the INS can enter a workplace to look for undocumented workers," said Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Los Angeles office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). "It doesn't go as far as we want, but it's a significant improvement."
INS officials, however, say the ruling involving the 1982 raid of a Petaluma poultry plant does not set down a new standard but merely extends one established in a 1981 Washington case. They emphasize that the new decision is limited to Northern California and likely will be appealed. A previous ruling by Aguilar in the same case was substantially narrowed last year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"It's going to make it more difficult for us to obtain warrants of inspection for work sites in Northern California," said William Odencrantz, counsel for the agency's Western regional office. "But it should be only for a short time because the judge's decision is contrary to the law in the 9th Circuit."
Aguilar issued the decision last week but it came to public attention Tuesday when lawyers for MALDEF distributed it to reporters.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the class-action suit more than five years ago on behalf of workers and several Bay Area companies, including the poultry plant, that were raided by the INS.
The ruling involved a warrant from a U.S. magistrate authorizing the INS to inspect the poultry plant and seize any suspected illegal aliens. Aguilar found that part of the warrant naming five suspected illegal aliens was constitutional because the illegals were named and specific details about them were provided. But he said the detainment of 10 others not named in the warrant but referred to only as "others" amounted to an illegal fishing expedition.
"No matter how the INS wishes to recast, recharacterize or otherwise misrepresent the warrant, it remains true that the warrant was fundamentally a license for the INS to seize people simply because they were 'suspected of being illegal aliens . . . ' " Aguilar wrote.
Aguilar stopped short of requiring that the INS name suspected illegals in inspection warrants. But in citing the Washington case, he implied that agents should conduct a thorough pre-raid investigation and verify information through employment records and inside sources. Only then should a magistrate issue a warrant.
"Unlike the (Washington case), the supporting material in this case contains no first-hand information, neither from informants nor INS agents," he concluded.
In the past, immigration workers were known to make unannounced raids on U.S. companies and herd into trucks anyone who looked Latino or spoke with an accent.