In the early hours of April 26, 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrived at Kaolin Mushroom Farms’ Alpine Plant in Avondale, Pennsylvania.
Grainy cell phone video captured some of what happened next as federal law enforcement authorities in bulletproof jackets led workers to an unmarked white van.
“We know they came before 7 a.m., we know they were armed,” said David Secor, a third-year law student at Villanova who has been working with one of the men arrested through the university’s Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic.
Farm owner Michael Pia told NBC10 after the arrest that he wasn’t aware whether the federal agency had a warrant to come onto the property. That week, an ICE spokesman later confirmed the “targeted enforcement operation” netted 12 arrests.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security’s interim director Tom Homan announced his agency would crack down on unauthorized immigrants in the workplace, vowing to increase manpower devoted to those investigations “by four to five times.” Immigration attorneys say arrests at or near workplaces are becoming more common in Pennsylvania, as the federal government ramps up enforcement of immigration laws in the country’s interior.
So far, ICE has scooped up kitchen workers at the Montezuma Mexican restaurant chain in Gettysburg and Chambersburg, as well as poultry catchers in the midstate region. Groups and politicians advocating tougher immigration enforcement, including Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, have called for cracking down in the workplace to dissuade unauthorized workers from coming to the United States. Since 1986, it has been against the law for employers to knowingly hire immigrants without proper work authorization.
But the path from arrest to deportation is not always straight — as the Kaolin arrests show. The way ICE carries out an arrest can also impede its efforts. WHYY has confirmed around half of the 12 arrested in Avondale were deported; at least two sought motions to suppress; and at least two are pursuing other forms of relief in immigration court.
“Many people, within a day or two of the arrest, accepted deportation because, what was the hope?” said Caitlin Barry, director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic at Villanova University.
Barry interviewed the mushroom workers after they’d been picked up and taken to immigrant detention at York County Prison. She said around six people left the country, because they had a prior order of removal or they chose to accept deportation. Some caved, she said, because “they were so incredibly humiliated that they were now in orange jumpsuits.”
The U.S. has laws against unauthorized border crossings — but it also has constitutional protections against “unreasonable searches and seizure.” When law enforcement — whether local police or ICE — fails to heed the U.S. Constitution during an arrest, the evidence gathered may be tossed out as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Someone arrested in the United States for an immigration offense may also qualify under a different statute to remain lawfully in the country.
After the Kaolin arrests, immigration attorney Alicia Anguino filed what’s called a motion to suppress on behalf of her client. All attorneys working with the former mushroom workers declined to make public identifying information about their clients, but Anguino said this man is a 32-year-old father of a 1-year-old U.S. citizen who’d been working for Kaolin since 2012 at the time of his arrest.
The motion called for excluding information about her client’s immigration status because the arrest itself violated the 4th Amendment. For example, Anguino said, it’s not clear who ICE was looking for or if officers had a warrant to come onto private property.
“My client was not asked where he was born or for his ID until they frisked him at York County Prison,” she said, calling it a case of racial profiling. ICE did not return recent requests for comment on the details and outcomes of these arrests.
ICE attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case against Anguino’s client in April. Almost a year to the day after that arrest, immigration Judge Charles Honeyman granted it, essentially reverting Anguino’s client back to the status he had before the arrest — which is to say, none. Motions to suppress halt a deportation, but they don’t grant any legal benefit, such as a visa or work authorization.
Two clients represented by the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic continue to fight their cases in immigration court. Barry and Secor declined to mention the types of visas or other immigration relief they are seeking.
“Removal procedures may be proper, [but] ICE does need to follow the law when trying to get these individuals into custody,” said immigration attorney Ricky Palladino, who estimates he’s filed about 20 motions to suppress in the last year.
Otherwise, immigration attorneys will be watching.
Challenging allegedly unconstitutional arrests “shows the government that we are looking out and making sure that they are acting the way that they should be acting,” said Anguino.