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10 immigrants sue US, Conn. city over arrests

Juan Barrera (left), shown at a press conference, was arrested during a sting targeting day laborers. Juan Barrera (left), shown at a press conference, was arrested during a sting targeting day laborers. (Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

HARTFORD - Lawyers for 10 Latino men arrested in Danbury in the past year filed a civil rights lawsuit yesterday, accusing city and federal officials of a plot to harass immigrants through illegal arrests and intimidation.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in New Haven, alleges authorities violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free speech, free association, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

Nine of the 10 were arrested during a sting targeting day laborers, while the 10th was detained after an unrelated traffic stop.

Professors and students at Yale Law School, who are representing the men, attributed much of the problem to Danbury's mayor, Mark Boughton, who denied the allegations.

"The arrival of new Latino immigrants, and the failure of the federal government to address immigration's local effects, has sparked a backlash from Mayor Boughton's administration, which has targeted, harassed, and intimidated these new city residents through a number of discriminatory policies," the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs say police officers have made civil immigration arrests despite not having the authority to do so. They also allege that the city has discriminated against Latinos in enforcing city ordinances, shutting down neighborhood volleyball games, and encouraging police harassment of day laborers.

"These policies aim ultimately to drive unwanted immigrants from Danbury and to deter future immigrants from making Danbury their home," the lawsuit says.

Nine of the men were day laborers arrested in a sting operation on Sept. 19, 2006. They were waiting at a park and got into a vehicle driven by a man who they thought had hired them to demolish a fence, according to the lawsuit. The driver was an undercover Danbury police officer.

When the men arrived at the purported work site, they were arrested and shipped to detention centers around the country. All nine are free on bond, and their immigration cases are pending. The lawsuit says the 10th plaintiff was deported to Ecuador earlier this year after a racially motivated traffic stop by Danbury police.

The plaintiffs say police did not know who the nine laborers were before the sting and had no probable cause or warrants to justify the arrests. All nine were shipped to detention centers as far away as Texas and were denied access to phones to call their families and lawyers, the lawsuit says.

Boughton disputed the allegations yesterday. He said local police provide support to federal operations and comply with the Constitution.

"Frankly, we are not going to be bullied by Yale or by anybody else as it relates to the equal application and the neutral applications of the laws of the city of Danbury," Boughton said during an afternoon press conference.

Boughton sparked controversy in 2005 when he proposed that State Police be deputized as federal immigration agents, but Connecticut's public safety commissioner rejected the request.

Danbury has been transformed in recent years by waves of new immigrants. The influx has strained schools, created overcrowded housing, and led to other problems such as unlicensed and unregistered drivers, Boughton has said.

The mayor has called for federal legislation that secures the country's borders, heightens enforcement, and reimburses cities for what they spend on services for immigrants. He also wants a path to citizenship for the nation's illegal workers.

Lawyers for the 10 Latino plaintiffs declined to say whether they are in the country legally, citing the pending federal immigration cases.

Mike Gilhooly, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said customs officials had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the allegations. He offered only a general statement: "All enforcement actions undertaken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are done fully within the law and fully within the policies and procedures," Gilhooly said.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the actions of Danbury and federal immigration officials unconstitutional. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

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