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US Justice Department, civil rights groups file lawsuits against Iowa over immigration law

Participants at the "For Human Dignity" vigil/rally outside St. Anthony Catholic Church in Davenport, Iowa, May 1, 2024, hold placards protesting Iowa's new law that makes it a state crime for illegal reentry into Iowa. The vigil/rally was one of five events held in four Iowa cities on May 1, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. The new law -- which is to take effect July 1 but is on hold pending court appeals -- also gives Iowa judges and law enforcement officials the authority to determine whether someone should be deported. (OSV News photo/Barb Arland-Fye, The Catholic Messenger)

DAVENPORT, Iowa (OSV News) — Separate lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups claim that the state of Iowa’s new immigration law, which creates a state crime for unlawful reentry, violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

Both lawsuits were filed May 9, eight days after prayer rallies and marches organized in four Iowa cities called for the law’s repeal and for human dignity. Iowa’s bishops issued a statement the same day, May 1, opposing the legislation and calling for a compassionate response to the issue of migration.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit challenges Iowa Senate File 2340 under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and Foreign Commerce Clause.

“The Constitution assigns the federal government to regulate immigration and manage our international borders,” the suit says. “Pursuant to this authority, Congress has established a comprehensive immigration framework governing the entry of noncitizens into the U.S. and the removal of noncitizens from the country. Because SF 2340 is preempted by federal law and violates the United States Constitution, the Justice Department seeks a declaration that SF 2340 is invalid and an order preliminarily or permanently enjoining the state from enforcing the law.”

“Iowa cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We have brought this action to ensure that Iowa adheres to the framework adopted by Congress and the Constitution for regulation of immigration.”

Boynton said that the U.S. Supreme Court, in Arizona v. United States, “confirmed that decisions relating to removal of noncitizens from the United States touch ‘on foreign relations and must be made with one voice.’ SF 2340 impedes the federal government’s ability to enforce entry and removal provisions of federal law and interferes with its conduct of foreign relations.”

The lawsuit’s other plaintiffs are the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State.

The ACLU of Iowa Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and Iowa Immigration Council filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on behalf of the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, and Iowa immigrants.

Their lawsuit states that SF 2340 “attempts to displace federal immigration law and set up an independent state immigration scheme.” SF 2340 “purports to give Iowa state officials broad power to arrest, detain, and deport noncitizens in Iowa who reentered the United States after a previous removal or exclusion,” it says.

“Under this novel system, the State of Iowa has created its own immigration crime which will require state police to identify and arrest noncitizens for alleged violations; state prosecutors to bring charges in state courts; state judges to order deportation; and state officers to facilitate those orders,” it continues. “The federal government has no role in, and no control over, Iowa’s immigration scheme.”

The civil rights groups also argue that “the law makes no exception for people who reentered the United States with federal consent or who later gained lawful immigration status. Nor does the law make an exception for people who are in the process of obtaining immigration status. And the law provides no opportunity to raise humanitarian claims for protection from removal enshrined in federal immigration law and international conventions.”

“People in these situations have explicit federal permission to remain in the country, yet (SF) 2340 directs state officials to nevertheless force them to leave the country or impose additional penalties of up to 10 years in prison. The law makes no exception for people who were removed, deported, excluded, or denied admission and returned as children, nor does it prohibit the prosecution of children.”

The lawsuit provides examples of immigrants who face the risk, unfairly, of being arrested and deported, such as “Anna.” The 18-year-old high school student from Honduras now lives with a family in Iowa.

“Anna’s father was murdered and her older sister kidnapped in Honduras. She first fled to the United States in September 2019 with her mother and her sister when she was 14 years old,” it says. “Federal immigration authorities arrested Anna and her family at the U.S.-Mexico border and forced them to undergo removal proceedings in Mexico, under a program called the Migrant Protection Protocols. An immigration judge ordered Anna and her mother removed in January 2020.”

Anna returned to the United States from Mexico alone in February 2020, “again seeking protection,” it says. She was arrested by federal immigration authorities and sent to a shelter for unaccompanied children run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. “In May 2020, ORR released Anna to family living in the United States. Anna submitted an affirmative asylum application, which was approved in March 2021.”

According to the lawsuit, if SF 2340 goes into effect, “Anna will be subject to prosecution, imprisonment, and removal to Mexico.” But she is not a Mexican citizen and does not have family there, “but she also cannot return to Honduras, where her father was killed and where she faces persecution,” it adds.

Both lawsuits seek from the courts a declaration that SF 2340 is unlawful in its entirety and an order preliminarily and permanently enjoining the defendants from enforcing the law.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, responding to the lawsuits in a Nov. 9 statement, said, “As Governor, I have the responsibility to protect the citizens of Iowa. Since President Biden refuses to enforce our nation’s immigration laws — threatening the safety of our citizens — Iowa will step in.”

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of Iowa’s bishops, said, “The filing of the lawsuits was not unexpected and we hope the law ultimately doesn’t go into effect.”

Iowa’s bishops say that laws such as SF 2340 “place a disproportionate emphasis on punitive sanctions, undermine family unity, reduce humanitarian protections and provide no viable solutions for long-term residents without legal status.”

Barb Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.

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