GREENBELT — Last Friday, United States District Judge George J. Hazel issued a class-wide preliminary injunction that prohibits federal immigration officials from arresting or deporting non-citizens who have started the process to obtain legal immigration status based on their marriage to a U.S. citizen spouse. The order also requires U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release anyone currently in detention who was detained before they could complete even the first step of that process.

This is an important victory in the Sanchez v. McAleenan case, a class action brought by six families challenging ICE’s practice of arresting people when they show up for interviews required as part of the legalization process, in violation of ICE’s own regulations. The decision provides preliminary relief for members of the proposed class: anyone in Maryland with a final order of removal who has formally started the legal process to obtain legal immigration status through a U.S. citizen spouse, and is not ineligible for an I-601a, also known as a provisional waiver of unlawful presence. The order protects anyone with upcoming marriage interviews, and orders the release of anyone in ICE’s custody who has been victimized by this cruel practice. 

Under this particular form of immigration relief, the process takes years to complete, so federal immigration laws and regulations created the possibility of completing the necessary paperwork in the United States, so that families would not be broken up while the non-citizen spouse was required to wait abroad for approval of all the forms. These regulations turned a years-long family separation into a matter of weeks or months, until ICE began ignoring their own regulations.

Disregarding their own regulations, ICE cruelly and unnecessarily separated Maryland families. Judge Hazel expressed in his decision the real impact this practice has had on two of the named plaintiffs: “The detention of Petitioners Sanchez Hernandez and Nana caused them and their families the emotional harm of being separated and the economic harm of losing the families’ primary income-earners.” In a similar case also before Judge Hazel, Mr. Wanrong Lin was detained after his marriage interview, and sent on a plane back to China before Judge Hazel ruled that he must be returned. Mr. Sanchez was also detained after what seemed to be a successful I-130 marriage interview. Judge Hazel noted that the families “have a legitimate entitlement to complete the application process” and that an agency may not “‘simply disregard rules that are still on the books.’”

Staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, Nick Taichi Steiner, said: “These families endured trauma under the actions of ICE. Their blatant disregard for their own rules and regulations that are meant to prevent family separation is unconstitutional. We are hopeful about the ruling and we believe it’s a step in the right direction in recognizing that immigrants have constitutional protections too.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Nick Taichi Steiner and David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland, and Seth Rosenthal, Nathaniel Berry, and Katherine Sochacki of Venable LLP.

Learn more about Sanchez v. McAleenan and Lin v. Nielson here.