A longtime federal immigration attorney claims Immigration and Customs Enforcement managers mounted a campaign of "humiliation" and "brutal scape-goating" to purge officials they didn't want, raising concerns from a top GOP lawmaker that the administration was trying to "force compliance" with its controversial policies.
The attorney, Patricia Vroom, made the allegations in a lawsuit filed last month. The lawsuit is getting renewed attention in the wake of President Obama's executive actions to let potentially millions of illegal immigrants stay in the country and work.
In the suit, Vroom claimed she was rebuked for her "push-back" on a prior effort to drop cases against illegal immigrants with identity theft convictions, and received a low performance rating at the time.
"It was part of an orchestrated, coordinated effort ... to purge [the ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, OPLA] of senior Chief Counsel so that much younger, much less experienced, and thus much more impressionable individuals who were beholden to them, could be installed in their place," the lawsuit alleges.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., cited the lawsuit in a letter on Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and the acting ICE director. He said the suit shows the administration "bullied career lawyers" to "force compliance" with its policies, and ultimately replace them with "favored individuals."
He asked for more information, and raised concerns that some of the individuals cited in the suit will now be carrying out the president's executive orders shielding more illegal immigrants from deportation.
"What is troubling is that several of the people named in the complaint are tasked with enforcing our immigration laws and implementing the President's November 20, 2014, announcement which further curtails immigration enforcement," Goodlatte said in a statement on Monday.
An ICE official said in an email on Monday that leadership "take these allegations seriously and when founded will always take the appropriate disciplinary action."
The official said: "We are reviewing the allegations in the complaint, which largely refer to events from 2012 and 2013 concerning workplace environment and various personnel decisions taken by key officials, some of whom have since left the Department."
The lawsuit names Johnson as the defendant and alleges the department retaliated against Vroom over prior complaints she made, and claims age and sex discrimination. The plaintiff is 59, has been at ICE and its predecessor agency for 26 years, and currently is chief counsel at the OPLA in Phoenix.
Beyond the discrimination claims, though, the suit lays out what it describes as a "relentless" effort by office managers to target senior attorneys for "harassment, reassignment of duties to much less desirable ones, public humiliation, and brutal scape-goating" to ultimately get rid of them.
The lawsuit even claims this was boiled down to a "3-point plan":
"1) threaten to move their position; 2) find out what they liked to do and take it all away, and find out what they did not like to do and load them up with it; and 3) stay on them constantly, never giving them a moment's peace."
Vroom alleges she ultimately became a target of this effort, and that one of the factors was a push to "look favorably for prosecutorial discretion" for low-level identity theft cases in Arizona -- in other words, be lenient toward illegal immigrants with these convictions.
"Prosecutorial discretion" is the term for an Obama administration effort to prioritize serious criminals for deportation and let other lower-level cases slide. The lawsuit claims the focus on identify theft cases was "significant," and Vroom often sought "clarification" on the instructions.
But Vroom, in turn, was accused of giving "push-back," according to the suit.
The suit also describes one discussion in September of this year when Jim Stolley, director of field legal operations, was talking with agency attorneys about "prosecutorial discretion" for "low-level" offenders including old DUI convictions. When some attorneys challenged Stolley, he allegedly said, "We don't give a s--- about that. Let it go."
Another top official criticized in the suit is Principal Legal Advisor Peter Vincent, who left the agency last month.
The lawsuit claims that Vroom's performance rating shot up last month, after she retained legal counsel.