What happened in tiny Stillmore, Ga., either delights or disturbs observers of the nation's immigration debate.
As part of a get-tough campaign against America's estimated 12 million undocumented workers, immigration agents over Labor Day weekend raided a Hispanic community with connections to a poultry plant, sweeping up 125 people in a series of raids across three mid-Georgia counties, with Stillmore at the epicenter.
But was the raid legal? And was it right? In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Federal Court in Atlanta, the Southern Poverty Law Center claims the constitutional rights of six US citizens were violated by overzealous agents during the Stillmore raids. Moreover, they allege the government used "Gestapo-like tactics" as part of a deliberate campaign of fear ordered by the Department of Homeland Security.
In the absence of a legislative revamp of the nation's immigration laws, the clash over America's immigrants is headed for its day in court. And the emerging legal picture will either redefine the constitutional status of illegal immigrants, or, at least, clarify what steps communities and law enforcement can and cannot take to stem the flood of illegals across the city limits.
"The problem we face now is to what extent is this, even if it's constitutional, good policy – both from the perspective of its effect on US citizens, but, also, is this what we should be doing with taxpayer dollars?," says Victor Romero, an associate dean at the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State.
An investigation into document fraud at a poultry plant in Stillmore led to what immigration officials called a "targeted action" to round up specific scofflaws.
But witnesses say the strike sparked general mayhem. Residents describe people running desperately from their homes and hiding for weeks in the woods. At least one child was left behind by her fleeing parents. The dramatic shift in the aftermath from a busy town to near ghost town disturbed many local people.
The lawsuit claims that the raids "trampled on the constitutional rights of every person of Hispanic descent unfortunate enough to get in the way." Three plaintiffs – mobile-home park owner David Robinson, Tina Martinez, and her daughter, Justeen Mancha, – spoke to reporters at a press conference in Atlanta.
"I was shocked," says Justeen, age 15, describing how she was getting ready for school when more than a dozen black-clad men, at least one with his hand on his holster, entered her house without knocking. She was questioned, but not arrested.
Officials say agents conducted the raids lawfully. "We didn't target any race or ethnic group; we targeted illegal aliens," says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Marc Raimondi.
Immigration officials have a lower threshold for establishing suspicion than local law enforcement, legal experts agree, which is why agents may not have needed to flash search warrants during the raid.
"Regulations authorize ICE to take action when they have a reasonable suspicion of a violation," says Jennifer Chacon, an immigration law expert at the University of California, Davis. "What this does is it creates the ability for them to carry out enforcement actions in a way that are less court scrutinized ... than ... criminal investigations."
But what the Stillmore lawsuit shares with other court cases cropping up from New Orleans to St. Louis is to what extent government can go to push illegals out while guaranteeing essential constitutional and human rights.
While federal officials are specifically assigned that responsibility, a growing number of local communities are adopting the so-called Hazleton Ordinance, a law that makes it illegal for citizens to employ or rent to illegals. Proponents say it's a legal way to address local crime and social problems.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania this week ordered a stay on the Hazleton laws until Nov. 14 to allow for a trial. US workplace rules give anybody who is drawing a paycheck – no matter their residential status – certain protections. Those rules played into a recently settled case over the refusal of a labor outsourcing company to properly pay Hispanic workers for helping to clean up after hurricane Katrina.
How race figures into the equation is at the core of the current court cases, says Mr. Romero. Courts will have to figure out whether, or to what extent local, state, and federal officials are using race or ethnicity as a factor in prosecutions.
"The way these ordinances are worded, they're flexible enough to allow for this type of complaint to move forward even though race might be a factor, and we have to worry about that," says Romero.
Driving much of the legal blowback, experts say, are increasingly aggressive tactics driven by popular discontent over the immigration situation. Deportations are up 10 percent over last year. Worksite enforcement arrests have gone from under 1,300 in 2005 to more than 4,300 this year. ICE has nearly doubled its number of detention spaces in the past year – from 16,000 to 27,500.
ICE's bolstered profile is "reflected across the board in what we do," says Mr. Raimondi in Washington. "The paradigm has shifted and today's realities regarding illegal immigration are far different than yesterday's norms."