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ACLU Deputy National Political Director Lorella Praeli speaks during The American Civil Liberties Union rally on Capitol Hill to demand action to end family separations, inhumane detentions and deportations, in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2019.MARY F. CALVERT/Reuters

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the Trump administration’s broad expansion of deportation powers, alleging in a federal lawsuit Tuesday that it violates constitutional rights and could lead to errors, including deporting U.S. citizens.

The lawsuit called the extension of the policy allowing immigration officers to deport migrants without requiring them to appear before judges as “dramatic” and “illegal.” Previously, the policy applied to those caught within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the U.S. border and who had been in the country under two weeks. Last month the Trump administration announced that immigration agents can now apply it anywhere nationwide to those in the country illegally less than two years.

The ACLU, along with the American Immigration Council, argued in the lawsuit that the expansion essentially gives low-level immigration officers the power to indiscriminately deport anyone without meaningful review, like a hearing or having an attorney.

“A closed proceeding without any external scrutiny will always be arbitrary,” said Anand Balakrishnan, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “It will always be unchecked and create too much room for error.”

The complaint cites several instances where federal agents using the initial “expedited removal” authority wrongly deported U.S. citizens, including a case in 2000 involving a U.S. citizen who was mentally disabled. The woman was unable to convince immigration agents that she was an American citizen after returning from visiting relatives in Jamaica and was deported.

Filed on behalf of immigrant advocacy groups in Texas, New York and Florida, the lawsuit names the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and several agencies it oversees. That includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. Messages left with agency spokesmen weren’t immediately returned Tuesday.

So-called “expedited removal” authority gives immigration authorities wide deportation power with limited exceptions, including if individuals express fear of returning home and pass an initial interview for asylum. The policy, which has been around since 1996, has become a central part of immigration enforcement in the last decade.

President Donald Trump first announced he would expand such powers just after taking office as part of his promise to crack down on illegal immigration. Last month, Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan touted the expansion as a way to address an “ongoing crisis on the southern border” by freeing up beds in detention centres and reducing the immigration courts backlog.

However, critics have said it gives immigration officers too much power and could embolden them to indiscriminately round up immigrants. The announcement left immigration attorneys scrambling, with some advising their clients to collect as much documentation as possible to prove they’ve been in the U.S.

Roughly 300,000 immigrants living in the country illegally could be affected, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The complaint alleges that U.S. permanent residents and asylum seekers are at risk.

“Hundreds of thousands of people living anywhere in the U.S. are at risk of being separated from their families and expelled from the country without any recourse,” Balakrishnan said. “This is a dramatic — and illegal — escalation in the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrant communities.”

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