The Phillipsburg man came to the Northampton County Courthouse this year for a hearing in his drunken-driving case. An undocumented immigrant, he left court in handcuffs, with local authorities arresting him in order to turn him over to immigration agents for deportation.
But even assuming that Raul A. Romero-Matos’ arrest was illegal, he can still be legally deported, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in upholding an order that calls for him to be swiftly removed from the country.
The decision was heralded by District Attorney John Morganelli, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration who called it a victory for his get-tough policies. It was denounced by lawyers for Matos, who said it will have a chilling effect on immigrants seeking to assert their rights in the local justice system without fear of being taken into custody and deported.
“It’s a scary decision. It’s a really scary decision,” said Kevin Santos, one of Matos’ attorneys, who was challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, charging authorities lacked either a warrant or an immigration detainer.
“If someone’s in the wings of deportation, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply. That’s the title of this decision,” Santos said.
But how wide of an impact the ruling will have is an unanswered question. The Third Circuit limited its opinion specifically to Matos, declaring it as “non-precedential,” meaning its outcome will not influence future cases.
Matos, who holds dual citizenship in Peru and Spain, came to the United States in 2014 under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from America’s closest allies to visit for up 90 days without a visa. For those who overstay that threshold, federal law calls for them to be summarily deported, and severely restricts their ability to contest that, the Third Circuit noted.
What matters is whether Matos overstayed, and he indisputably did, wrote Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith for the three-judge panel.
Smith said allegations that Matos’ arrest was unlawful were “legally irrelevant,” and do not allow him to “remain in the United States despite his admission that he violated the terms of his entry.”
“In short, he would still be subject to removal even if his arrest was unconstitutional,” Smith wrote.
The decision represents the second legal defeat for Matos, who was working as a machine operator at a manufacturing company in Warren County, N.J., when he was charged last year with driving drunk in Palmer Township. Police said his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.
In the state courts, Matos unsuccessfully challenged another get-tough practice of Morganelli’s under which the district attorney has long barred undocumented immigrants committing minor crimes from a first-offender program that allows them to avoid a criminal record and lessen their chances of deportation.
Matos sought to force Morganelli to let him into the program, known as Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, charging the policy was discriminatory. But both the state Superior Court and Supreme Court declined to hear that appeal this year.
It was for a hearing over that issue that Matos came March 2 to the courthouse in Easton and wound up under arrest. At the time, he was free on unsecured bail in the drunken-driving case, but deputy sheriffs took him into custody in the courtroom at the end of the hearing.
Matos’ lawyers argued the district attorney’s office orchestrated the arrest. They charged deputy sheriffs lacked authority to make it, and did so without a valid warrant while Matos was asserting his legal rights.
Nationally, arrests at courthouses for immigration violations have been controversial, with critics warning they undermine immigrants’ willingness to cooperate with the local justice system. In some states — California, New Jersey and Washington — judges have spoken out against courthouse enforcement, saying it hurts public safety, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
David Bennion, the executive director of the Free Migration Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, said arrests such as Matos’ are not uncommon.
“It’s a sign of ongoing collaboration between law enforcement and the Trump administration,” Bennion said. “I think the case is characteristic of what is going on mostly under the radar.”
Morganelli said undocumented immigrants who witness crime, or are victims of it, should have no fear in Northampton County. He said he routinely signs off on what are known as U visas, which allow those who cooperate with law enforcement to remain in the country.
With those accused of breaking the law, Morganelli said he makes no apologies.
“They should be afraid because they have committed a crime and they will be subject to ICE apprehension,” Morganelli said, using the acronym of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Morganelli said he is confident that Matos was lawfully arrested, though the Third Circuit did not weigh in on that question. He praised the court’s ruling.
“This is a win for the rule of law and the fact we have immigration laws and they have to be followed,” Morganelli said.
Matos is being held at York County Prison, where ICE detains those from the area who are facing immigration violations. Santos, his attorney, said his legal team needs to meet with him to decide next steps, including whether to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his case, a longshot bid.
“He’s going to have to make a choice: Does he want to stay here while we fight this, or does he want to leave the country while we fight this from here?” Santos said.
Santos said Matos’ family is all in the United States, and he lacks roots in either Peru or Spain. Santos was unsure of which country Matos would want to return to.
“The question is, What life he is going to go back to?” Santos said. “We don’t know. We don’t know.”
Powered by WPeMatico