September 18, 2019 12:45 pm

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In an important decision for the rights of immigrants – and for a humane and fair immigration system – a federal judge in Rhode Island today ordered the release of a man whom the U.S. State Department is trying to extradite back to the Dominican Republic (DR) even though an immigration board found he would likely be tortured if returned there.

The American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Rhode Island had filed a “friend of the court” brief in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, and participated in oral argument with the Federal Public Defender, in support of the immigrant, Cristian Aguasvivas, who is being held in the Wyatt Detention Center. In a 27-page ruling, U.S. District Judge John McConnell, Jr. rejected a series of legal arguments offered by the government, and ordered Aguasvivas’s release from custody

The DR has been seeking to extradite Aguasvivas for allegedly fatally shooting a police officer. Aguasvivas claims he is innocent and the victim of rampant police corruption in that country that torture and extrajudicial killings. After being hunted by DR police, Aguasvivas fled to the United States and sought asylum. In 2016, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the federal administrative appellate body that applies immigration laws, concluded that it was “more likely than not” that Aguasvivas would be tortured if sent back to the DR. The BIA relied on testimony from various witnesses who were themselves tortured by the police in an attempt to find him and the fact that Aguasvivas’ brother was later killed by DR police.

The BIA issued an order preventing his extradition, based on the Convention Against Torture (CAT), an international human rights treaty to which the United States is a signatory. The treaty prohibits the return of any individual to a country where he/she will face torture. Despite the BIA’s conclusion, the U.S. State Department took the position that it remains free to extradite Aguasvivas, and that the federal courts had no jurisdiction to interfere with its plans or to consider whether Aguasvivas will be tortured and killed in the DR.

However, in his court ruling today, Judge McConnell held that “the immigration board’s finding that Aguasvivas is likely to be tortured prohibits his extradition under CAT.” He further rejected the notion that “one arm of the Executive Branch can make a determination and another arm of the Executive Branch can ignore that determination when deciding the exact issue.” He also rejected arguments that the court had no authority to hear Aguasvivas’s petition, concluding that the Constitution’s guarantee of the writ of habeas corpus ensured judicial jurisdiction over Aguasvivas’s claims.

ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Cody Wofsy said today: “We are gratified the court honored our country’s humanitarian commitment to protect people from torture.” ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown added: “The State Department’s position in this case was a direct and indefensible affront to our Constitution. It is a blatant example of the federal government’s anti-immigrant sentiment at the expense of fundamental American values, and its lack of concern about its participation in a potentially grave injustice. Today’s ruling is an important victory for immigrants and for justice and equality, and it sends a strong message that the federal government is not above the law.”

Additional information about the case can be found here.

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