Judge orders feds to release immigrants detained during marriage interviews

A citizenship candidate holds a flag during the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization ceremony at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, U.S., September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal judge in Maryland has banned immigration officials from arresting, detaining and deporting immigrants who are seeking legal status based on their marriages to U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel issued the ruling Friday in a case filed by six couples accusing immigration officials of luring families to marriage interviews in Baltimore, only to detain the immigrant spouse for deportation. Hazel also ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release from custody immigrants married to U.S. citizens detained before they could complete the first step of the process to obtain legal residency.

Federal regulations allow U.S. citizens to try to legalize the status of spouses who have been living in the country illegally, including those with deportation orders. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the Maryland couples, has argued that a growing number of officers have “cruelly twisted” the rules by detaining immigrant spouses following the required marriage interviews.

The months-long process typically requires couples to demonstrate the legitimacy of their marriage as part of the first step. If the couples pass an interview and earn other approvals, immigrant spouses eventually must travel abroad for a visa interview at a U.S. consulate. Only if they receive a visa can they return to the U.S. legally.

It’s unclear how many people have become permanent U.S. residents through the Obama-era regulations. They were created to significantly reduce the time that U.S. citizens are separated from immediate family members while trying to build a lawful immigration case from their home countries.

“(T)his order is in the public interest because it requires Respondents to comport with their own rules and regulations, bars arbitrary agency action toward vulnerable immigrant communities, and diminishes the emotional and financial impact on families participating in the provisional waiver process,” Hazel wrote. He has not ruled on the class certification sought by the plaintiffs.

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The government in its response filed last year asked Hazel to dismiss the case arguing the court lacked jurisdiction and the plaintiffs’ “claims are not likely to be successful.”

The ruling only applies to anyone living in Maryland, but the ACLU is also pursuing a similar complaint in Massachusetts. It is unclear how many people must be released from custody under Hazel’s ruling.

By Regina Garcia Cano for PBS NEWS HOURS
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