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MI immigration advocates raise concerns over SCOTUS ruling making it harder to sue federal officials

A Supreme Court decision released last week makes it harder to sue federal officials for money over accusations of violating the Constitution, and Michigan immigration advocates are concerned.

The 6-3 ruling says only Congress may authorize lawsuits seeking money from federal officials for potentially violating the Constitution.

Although the decision has wide-reaching effects on other federal agencies, the case involved a Border Patrol agent, and Michigan immigration advocates say the ruling further strips Michiganders of already-dwindling protections from immigration enforcement.

Pre-existing federal regulations give U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the authority to operate within 100 miles of any U.S. border.

The entire state of Michigan falls within this zone.

Immigration officers hold various powers without needing a warrant within this zone. Among other powers, this includes searches of people and vehicles and making arrests in some instances.

Although the ruling affects all federal officials, the CBP has the largest number of employees out of any other federal police agency.

Here in Michigan, Border Patrol’s Detroit Sector saw the fastest rate of growth of any sector in the country between 2000 and 2019 according to a 2021 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. The sector had 35 agents in 2000, and that grew to 404 agents in 2019, a 1,054% increase.

“What this (Supreme Court decision) means for Michiganders is that if the federal government has an unconstitutional overreach or violates someone's Fourth Amendment rights, whether it's CBP or another federal agency, there is little redress that can happen in federal courts,” said Ruby Robinson, Managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Immigration Rights Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Michigan similarly said, “this ruling leaves victims of police violence by Border Patrol agents without an effective remedy and endangers us all.”

Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout is the founder and managing attorney of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, a Michigan-based nonprofit immigration law office and advocacy center.

“The suggestion that there's nothing that the court can do, that they need this permission slip from Congress in order to act in this type of case is blatantly wrong,” she said. “Courts historically, have long held local state and federal officials accountable for their wrongdoings.”

Michigan's CBP office did not respond to a request for comment.

Evan Caminker, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, said that while the decision limits lawsuits seeking personal damages as compensation, it doesn’t stop individuals from suing over the federal agencies’ policies that might violate constitutional rights.

“You can still sue to seek a remedy where the court would say, ‘Hey, you guys have a pattern in practice of doing X, Y, and Z, you have to stop doing that,’” Caminker said. “... Unfortunately, what it doesn't help with is individual cases, where somebody, as in this case, complains that a border patrol agent used unjustified force.”

In these individual cases, Caminker said the best one can do is get media attention and lobby Congress to take action.

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