The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) established its Immigrants’ Rights Project (IRP) in 1987, ostensibly to protect all newcomers to the United States from discrimination and the violation of their legal rights. In practice, the IRP is an open-borders initiative that mirrors the ACLU’s dedication to defending and expanding the rights of illegal aliens. Maintaining its offices in New York and San Francisco, the IRP litigates cases in federal courts and provides legal support to various immigrant groups across the U.S., focusing its efforts on certain priority areas: the restriction or denial of judicial review; unfair deportation processes; mandatory detentions; and workers’ rights.
Lucas Guttentag, a Harvard Law School graduate and a Lecturer at Yale Law School, founded the project and has served as National Director ever since. He has received numerous awards for his civil rights activism from such entities as the National Immigration Forum and American Immigration Lawyers Association, and he co-chairs the Access to Justice Group, a project of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). Under his leadership, IRP has strategically targeted specific judicial cases aimed at setting precedents. In 1991, Guttentag won a class action case that guaranteed asylum to 250,000 Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees, notwithstanding their affiliation with the Communist guerrilla group, the FMLN. In 2001, Guttentag argued two Supreme Court cases, INS vs. St. Cyr and Calcano-Martinez, et al. vs. INS; the result was a ruling that deprived the U.S. Attorney General of the right to deport non-citizens without judicial review (St. Cyr was a convicted drug dealer, while Calcano-Martinez and her co-plaintiffs had been convicted of assorted felonies).
Another top official at the IRP is Judy Rabinovitz, a longtime radical activist and an adjunct Assistant Professor at the NYU School of Law. Rabinovitz has argued against the detention of HIV-positive Haitian refugees and organized a nationwide litigation campaign to challenge the mandatory detention of illegal immigrants as dictated by the 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.” In the Supreme Court’s Zadvydas v. Davis 2001 decision, Rabinovitz played a leading role in litigating against detention mandates and subsequently applied that decision to indefinitely detained Mariel Cubans. In 2003, she continued her campaign in another Supreme Court case, Demore v. Kim.
The IRP’s aim “to protect immigrants’ rights” also extends to terror suspects. Lee Gelernt, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and Deputy Director of the IRP, argued against secret deportation proceedings for suspected terrorists in two major 2002 cases, Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft and North Jersey Media Group v. Ashcroft. In 2003, the IRP filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Jose Padilla, a Chicago-based al Qaeda affiliate accused in connection with an attempt to detonate a “dirty bomb” on U.S. soil, and Yaser Hamdi, an American Muslim who took up arms against the United States in Afghanistan.
In 2005, the IRP stepped up its efforts to target the Bush administration, arguing that its policy on torture was responsible for a “widespread pattern” of abuse. Along with Human Rights First (HRF), Guttentag and his IRP team filed a suit to hold former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and high-level military commanders liable for the torture of Iraqi and Afghan civilians in U.S. military custody. The case Ali v. Rumsfeld was litigated in 2006 and was dismissed by a federal judge in 2007. As of May 2010, it was pending appeal.
In 2006 as well, the IRP condemned the “Fairness in Immigration Litigation Act of 2006,” a bill intended to limit the ability of criminal aliens to file repeated frivolous appeals of their legal cases. In 2009, Guttentag and the IRP welcomed President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would tackle immigration reform and hoped that Obama would also spearhead a much wider transformation that would give courts additional power over governmental policy.
The IRP has particularly come to view the immigration debate through the lens of “racial justice.” In 2010, after Arizona passed its 2010 law (SB 1070), which targete illegal aliens, the ACLU and the IRP immediately condemned Arizona. The law would “increase racial profiling and discrimination against Latinos and anyone who might appear to be an immigrant,” Lucas Guttentag told the New York Times, affirming that his organization as well as many others were planning constitutional challenges. The IRP also launched the ACLU national campaign “What Happens in Arizona Stops in Arizona,” to galvanize public opinion against the law.