Category Archives: October 2020

Civil Rights Advocates Win Reversal of Discriminatory City Utility Policies in Court Settlement

October 30, 2020

NILC: Juan Gastelum, [email protected], 213-375-3149
SCHR: Hannah Riley, [email protected], 470-867-7530

For more details about the settlement agreement, contact Mayra Joachin, NILC staff attorney, [email protected], 213-674-2830.

Civil Rights Advocates Win Reversal of Discriminatory City Utility Policies in Court Settlement

City of LaGrange, GA, ends local policies that had unlawful discriminatory impact on Black and Latinx residents

ATLANTA — Civil rights groups reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, that eliminates discriminatory local policies that for years prevented many residents from being able to access basic utility services. The policies, which disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx residents, imposed burdensome identification requirements for utilities applicants and threatened residents with utility shutoffs if they owed unrelated court debt to the city.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Relman Colfax PLLC filed the lawsuit against the city of LaGrange in May 2017, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violate the Fair Housing Act and Georgia law. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County Chapter of the NAACP, Project South, and seven impacted city residents.

“The discriminatory utilities policies adopted by LaGrange severely limited where Latinx immigrants and Black residents could live in the city and deprived them of access to critical services. Today’s victory is a great step toward ensuring that all residents of LaGrange have equal and fair access to essential utilities like gas, water, and electricity, and can live in housing of their choice,” said Mayra Joachin, staff attorney at NILC. “We are proud to stand with our plaintiffs, who boldly fought back against the city’s discriminatory policies and achieved justice for themselves and their neighbors. This outcome shows us that when communities come together, we can achieve victories that are good for all our communities.”

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services to its residents. Unlike most municipalities in the country, the city does not levy property taxes — instead, municipal operations are largely funded through the city’s sale of basic utilities. Before the lawsuit was filed, the city required people applying for utilities to comply with two policies.

The first policy, which disproportionately affected Latinx immigrants, required applicants for utility services to provide certain identification documents issued in the United States to open an account. This policy barred many Latinx immigrant families in LaGrange from accessing essential utilities in their name.

“Access to water and sanitation services is a human right,” said Azadeh N. Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South. “No city should deny this essential service to its residents based on their immigrant status. We hope that this victory will lead other cities in the U.S. South that are currently engaging in human rights violations against their immigrant residents to change course.”

“This is a great victory for our community in LaGrange, and especially for the Latinx community, who for many years has been battling this very frustrating situation. After all this time in the dark, we finally see a light. I feel very happy to be part of this fight and this victory, which will help not only my family and my neighbors, but all the residents of our city,” said one of the John Doe plaintiffs, a resident of LaGrange who was directly affected by this policy.

The second city policy required that LaGrange residents pay any debts they owed to the city, including unrelated municipal court fees and fines, in order to initiate and/or maintain basic utility services. Residents with court debt were vulnerable to having their utilities turned off, sometimes with little advance notice. This policy disproportionately impacted Black residents: 90 percent of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black. (LaGrange’s population is only 48 percent Black.)

“This settlement is transformational,” said Ernest Ward, former president of the Troup County NAACP. “It brings much needed changes to LaGrange’s Black and Brown communities, while shining a light on the systemic problems in the city. It reinforces the racial justice work we’ve been doing for years, and the work that remains to be done.”

“An unpaid court fine should never endanger someone’s housing — but that’s exactly what was happening in the city of LaGrange before the community took action against these regressive, discriminatory policies,” said Atteeyah Hollie, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The use of court debt to determine one’s access to lights, heat, and water is both unjust and inhumane, and we are glad to see the city recognize that.”

The case went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. That Court’s decision — recognizing that having utilities is a critical part of what makes a home livable — was a major victory for the plaintiffs, but it also stands as a warning to other utilities providers that seek to limit access to their residents.

“We’re very pleased with the results of the settlement for our clients and all residents of LaGrange,” said Reed Colfax, partner at Relman Colfax PLLC. “The courage and persistence of the plaintiffs in this case will have wide-reaching effects around the country because of the Eleventh Circuit’s important decision confirming the broad application of the Fair Housing Act to all types of conduct that affect the ability to use and enjoy one’s home. This case will continue to improve the ability of community members to enforce their fair housing rights for years to come.”

“This is a monumental victory for residents of LaGrange and the civil rights advocates who have been fighting alongside them for the past few years to achieve justice,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director at NILC. “This ruling sends a clear message that these kinds of discriminatory and harmful policies will not stand — not just in LaGrange, but in any city across the country. We can no longer accept the criminalization of poverty. We are grateful for our courageous plaintiffs who have fought long and hard for this victory for themselves and their community. We know that when we join together to fight back, we win.”

The members of the litigation team include Reed Colfax, Alexa Milton, Atteeyah Hollie, Cody Cutting, Nick Barber, Mayra Joachin, Meredith Cabell, Kevin Herrera, Robin Goldfaden, Isabel Tessier, and Isabelle Charo. Former litigation team members include Jamie Crook, Maya Chaudhuri, Justin Cox, Karen Tumlin, Melissa Keaney, Sheila Miller, Joseph Wardenski, Abigail Moats, Francesca Simon, and Nowmee Shehab.


Migrant Justice Settles Federal Lawsuit on ICE Retaliation

October 28, 2020

– Juan Gastelum, National Immigration Law Center, (213) 375-3149, [email protected]
– Will Lambek, Migrant Justice, (802) 321-8393, [email protected]
– Leah Lotto, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, (212) 633-6967, [email protected]
– Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights, (212) 614-6449, [email protected]
– Liz Valsamis, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, (213) 229-7115, [email protected]
– S. Beth Nolan, ACLU of Vermont, (802) 279-0747, [email protected]

Migrant Justice Settles Federal Lawsuit on ICE Retaliation

Trump administration agrees to terms in First Amendment lawsuit days before election

BURLINGTON, VT — In the settlement of a major federal lawsuit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has agreed not to deport the immigrant activists who sued the agency after suffering retaliatory arrests, and to instruct officers not to target people “for exercising First Amendment rights.” Immigrant farmworkers with Vermont-based human rights organization Migrant Justice led a march today to Burlington’s federal courthouse to claim victory and file the settlement in Migrant Justice v. Wolf.

“With this settlement, we have shown that we won’t back down in the face of ICE’s abuses. They have tried to silence us by terrorizing our community and targeting our leaders, but we are here today to say that we will not be silenced,” said Victor Diaz, a Migrant Justice leader and plaintiff.

Today’s march mirrors a similar rally nearly two years ago when farmworkers marched on the courthouse to open the First Amendment claim. The 2018 suit alleged that ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducted an unlawful, multi-year operation to surveil, harass, arrest, and detain the organization’s members and leaders. Migrant Justice contended that those activities were undertaken in retaliation against the plaintiffs’ exercise of their rights to speech and assembly and in order to destabilize Migrant Justice.

The lawsuit claimed federal immigration authorities had targeted Migrant Justice leaders and members since at least 2014, as the organization was engaged in high-profile human rights organizing across Vermont and nationally. As part of a larger pattern of suppressing immigrant activism nationwide, federal immigration authorities infiltrated the meetings and private associations of Migrant Justice by using a civilian informant, invasively surveilled its members, and mined their social media pages for information. In an attempt to undermine the organization, ICE spread false information about it, including that staff were collaborating with the agency to locate and detain immigrant community members.

Plaintiffs were represented in the lawsuit by the ACLU of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the National Immigration Law Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

“The Constitution protects our freedom to defend human rights and that includes protecting the farmworkers in Vermont who organized and won driver’s licenses and created their landmark Milk with Dignity Program,” said National Center for Law and Economic Justice Senior Attorney Leah Lotto. “Today’s settlement and victory for Migrant Justice shows how important it is to stand up against ICE’s wrongful actions targeting and detaining these and other activists fighting for equity in their communities.”

When the suit was filed in November 2018, ICE had detained more than 20 people actively involved in Migrant Justice, including the organization’s most prominent leadership. The lawsuit pointed to evidence of direct retaliation in nine of those cases. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit documented how, during the course of the arrests, ICE agents harassed and intimidated community leaders, referring to one as a “famous person” because of his activism, and named an additional member who would be “next.” ICE compiled dossiers on Migrant Justice leaders, including their social media pages and media appearances.

Three community leaders who have suffered from ICE’s targeted retaliation — Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios, and Victor Diaz — joined Migrant Justice as plaintiffs in the suit. All are in deportation proceedings after having been detained by ICE. Under the terms of the settlement, the federal government has agreed not to deport the three plaintiffs, by granting them deferred action, which will allow them to remain in the United States and obtain work permits. ICE will also pay damages of $100,000, to be divided among the plaintiffs.

“More than three years ago, ICE targeted me for my political activism and held me in detention for 11 days. They have been trying to deport me ever since,” said plaintiff Enrique Balcazar. “With this agreement, ICE is admitting defeat, allowing myself and others to remain in the country and accepting that they cannot target people for speaking out and organizing. We want this to become a precedent so that other groups and community leaders can organize without fear of retaliation. Because fear is not an option for our communities.”

Through the agreement, ICE must also tell its agents that immigrants, regardless of immigration status, are protected by the First Amendment and have the right to freedom of speech and assembly. The agency must send a memorandum to all employees in Vermont explaining “the obligations of this Office to act in accordance with the First Amendment, including its commitment to not profile, target on account of, or discriminate against any individual or group for exercising First Amendment rights.”

“The First Amendment enshrines the right of all individuals to speak and assemble peaceably without fear of retaliation or discrimination by the government on account of race or immigration status,” said Joel Cohen, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. “This settlement underscores that the government will be held to affirm its commitment to upholding these fundamental rights for all.”

“Zully, Enrique, Victor, and Migrant Justice members have been at the forefront of the fight for immigrant rights in Vermont. Their willingness to raise their voices, share their stories to advocate for change, and organize to ensure immigrants can live with dignity and thrive strengthens our communities and is fundamental to our democracy,” said Trudy S. Rebert, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “Today’s settlement agreement sends the message that all of us have First Amendment rights and no one should be retaliated against for exercising those rights — our democracy depends upon it.”

“The actions of ICE against Migrant Justice and its members cannot be divorced from the federal government’s, including ICE’s and other enforcement agencies’, disgraceful history of unlawfully targeting, surveilling, and disrupting grassroots movements for racial justice and civil and human rights. From COINTELPRO and the government’s actions against leaders in the movement for Black liberation in the 60s and 70s, to its current attacks on Black Lives Matter advocates, immigrant leaders in the Sanctuary Movement, and advocates at the southern border, the federal government has demonstrated a pattern of retaliation against dissenters across movements. It is up to us to hold our government to account for this unlawful conduct. This lawsuit and settlement is one tool to do just that, and ICE is on notice that we will continue to fight for the rights of Migrant Justice, its members, and other civil and human rights defenders,” said Lupe Aguirre, a Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The 2018 lawsuit had also named the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles as a defendant due to the state agency’s discriminatory practices of sharing immigrants’ information with ICE. In January, plaintiffs reached a separate settlement with the DMV, formalizing new regulations to restrict communication and information-sharing between the state agency and federal immigration agencies. The settlement also prohibits the DMV from retaining copies of birth certificates, passports, and other sensitive information of applicants for Driver’s Privilege Cards and requires the agency to retrain staff and hire an external auditor to monitor compliance with the agreement.

Today’s settlement brings the federal lawsuit to a close, just days before the presidential election. Said Migrant Justice spokesperson Thelma Gómez, “ICE’s abuses did not start under this administration and they won’t end next week, whoever wins the election. We have achieved something great today, and we must keep organizing to confront these abuses. Because it is only when we unite to defend our rights that we win justice.”

The settlement agreement is available at