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ACLU: Officials set up 'trap' to arrest immigrants at legal status interviews

(CNN) A Boston-area US Citizenship and Immigration Services office appears to have been coordinating with local ICE officials to arrest undocumented immigrant spouses married to US citizens when they appeared at government offices to interview for legal status, according to newly released internal emails.

The documents, included in a court filing made in an immigration case brought by the ACLU, which is working with the law firm WilmerHale in Massachusetts, show officials from the Boston-area offices of ICE and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing legal immigration requests, discussed scheduling interviews with immigrants at times that were convenient for ICE agents who would be waiting to arrest them -- and in some cases initiate the deportation process.

The ACLU calls the moves a "trap" in their filing and highlights emails that show ICE officials asking to spread the interviews over time to avoid media scrutiny and for logistical reasons, and, in one case, requesting USCIS delay an immigrant's meeting by 15 minutes because ICE agents were "getting a late start."

Matthew Segal, an ACLU attorney representing the plantiffs in the case that led to the release of the emails, said they are "shocking" evidence that USCIS coordinated these arrests with ICE in this office. The emails do not discuss the cases of the 10 named defendants in this case.

"They (USCIS) have represented to the public that people can come in for these interviews and be safe from arrest unless they pose a threat to public safety or national security," Segal said. "And at the very same time that USCIS was making those claims, it was working behind people's backs to have them arrested."

Five Massachusetts couples, each of whom involve a US citizen married to a non-citizen, are part of the ACLU lawsuit that led to the discovery of these documents. The ACLU says the emails that were entered as evidence on Monday do not specifically discuss any of the named couples' cases, but that they show DHS in New England uses the citizenship application process to "target individuals with final orders of deportation."

When contacted by CNN, DHS said they had no comment due to pending litigation. A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts US attorney's office, which is representing the immigration agencies in the case, also declined to comment.

USCIS spokesman Michael Bars was able to comment more generally on the policy.

"As a matter of policy, USCIS is unable to comment on matters involving pending litigation," Bars said in a statement to CNN. "In general, however, when USCIS officers encounter an individual with an outstanding administrative or criminal want or warrant or removal order, they will notify the appropriate law enforcement agency but has no role in issuing warrants or removal orders. The originating law enforcement agency has the discretion to decide whether they intend to apprehend the individual or not. USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations."

The emails

An email from Oct 6, 2017, shows a Boston-area USCIS employee emailing an ICE employee a list of people applying for relatives to become US citizens and flagging cases that "appear to have final orders of removal."

"My (field office director) asked that I reach out to you with this information and if need be coordinate the interview scheduling so they are not all scheduled at once," the USCIS employee writes. "If you could let us know if any are of interest that would be most appreciated."

An employee with ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations Boston office replied to the email on October 18, 2017, indicating the office's "level of interest" in each case, saying "the cases with criminal convictions have the highest priority" and asked for those people's interviews not to be scheduled "all at one time as it is not only a strain on our ability to transport and process several arrests at once, but it also has the potential to be a trigger for negative media interest, as we have seen in the past."

In a January email included in the filing, an ICE official explains to his colleagues how the local USCIS office "typically" sends a list of immigrants awaiting meetings on their request for legal status based on their relationship with an American citizen.

The official says in the email that ICE will then vet "the list of potential arrest targets" and "reply to (USCIS) with a list of which aliens we have interest in arresting."

"When the alien arrives for his/her interview, (USCIS) notifies us that the subject has arrived and we send to officers from the Fugitive unit to the (USCIS) office for the arrest," he writes.

In another exchange, from December 2017, a Boston field office employee emails a USCIS employee saying, "We are hoping to have two officers to your office but are getting a late start. Would it be possible to delay the interview by about fifteen minutes?"

Arrested while trying to become a citizen

The documents were filed Monday as part of a Massachusetts federal case involving Lilian Calderon, 30, who was taken into ICE custody in January when she and her husband went into for a marriage interview so that she could begin the process of trying to become a lawful permanent resident.

Calderon is a Guatemalan immigrant who was brought to the US when she was three years old. She is now married to a US citizen, and the couple has two children. The couple visited a USCIS office in Rhode Island near their home and just after sitting down for her interview, she was "unexpectedly detained by ICE," the complaint alleges.

Calderon had been subject to a final order of removal since the age of 15, after her father's asylum application was denied. Her DACA application was also denied in 2017 because, according to the complaint, "she had not provided sufficient evidence of her continuous presence in the United States."

Calderon was held in an ICE detention facility in Boston from January until February 13, after Judge Mark Wolf issued an order prohibiting ICE from deporting Calderon while her lawsuit is pending.

A copy of a USCIS field manual, submitted as part of this case in April, details the agency's policy on the "Arrest of an Alien During the Interview Process."

"As a general rule, any alien who appears for an interview before a USCIS officer in connection with an application or petition seeking benefits ... shall not be arrested during the course of the interview, even though the alien may be in the United States illegally," the manual reads.

The manual says that there are exceptions -- if the person is the subject of an outstanding warrant for arrest, appears to be a public safety threat or if the person is "the subject of a previously-issued warrant of deportation or warrant of removal UNLESS the alien is seeking benefits under a provision of a law ... which specifically allows an alien under an order of deportation or removal to seek such benefits."

Segal argues that Calderon was seeking such benefits at the time of her arrest, and should have been protected.

National implications

In its case, the ACLU alleges that what happened to couples like Calderon and her husband are a direct result of agencies interpreting President Donald Trump's January 2017 executive order on immigration law enforcement.

Monday's filing also includes the transcript of a deposition by Rebecca Adducci, an interim field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Burlington, who was temporarily working in the Boston field office for two months this year. In her deposition, she states that Trump's January 2017 executive order on immigration law enforcement "permits" the arrest of anyone with final orders of removal, regardless of whether they're pursuing citizenship or married to a US citizen at the time.

"These are all factors that should be considered when making a decision on whether or not to conduct an enforcement action," she said at the July 26 deposition. "But the policy, the executive order, I'm sorry, doesn't address that issue."

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, ICE Boston Field Office Director Christopher Cronen and others are named as defendants in the suit, but Segal said it is possible other agencies could be named.

Next week, US District Judge Mark Wolf will hear arguments on whether to dismiss the case, and whether to issue a preliminary injunction so that others in this district can be protected while the lawsuit is being heard.

"The government can't create this path and then arrest the people who are walking on it," Segal said.