(Adds immigration agency comment)
By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA, April 3 (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officers violated the rights of suspected illegal aliens by forcing their way into homes in pre-dawn raids, a lawsuit filed on Thursday says.
The officers woke suspects in eight New Jersey homes by pounding on doors between August 2006 and January 2008.
They ordered children out of beds, shouted obscenities and shoved guns into people's chests, according to the suit filed in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, by Seton Hall Law School's Center for Social Justice and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending litigation but that "ICE agents conduct themselves professionally."
The suit links the raids with "Operation Return to Sender," the immigration agency's campaign to arrest more immigrants, focusing on criminals. Operation Return to Sender ended on June 13, 2006, but immigrants' rights campaigners say its practices continue.
The agency said it arrested 2,179 illegal aliens during the three-week sweep, about half of whom had criminal records. There are an estimated 12 million foreign nationals living illegally in the United States.
"Our complaint shows that what happened to our plaintiffs in the middle of the night ... was part of a routine, widespread practice, condoned at the highest levels," Seton Hall attorney Bassina Farbenblum said in a statement.
The suit was filed on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, nine of them Latino. Five are referred to by pseudonyms because they have an "acute fear" of immigration authorities.
Six of the 10 were undocumented aliens, who are entitled under the fourth and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution to protection from intrusion into their homes by government officers, and to the right of due process under the law, said Scott Walker, an attorney with Lowenstein Sandler.
Plaintiff Maria Argueta was awakened at about 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 29 when agents "pounded furiously" on her door. They entered the house, claiming they were police looking for a criminal, conducted a search without a warrant, and arrested Argueta despite her producing documents showing she was legally in the United States on a temporary basis, the suit says.
Argueta was detained for almost 36 hours, denied food and water for the first 24, and released without explanation or apology, the suit says.
The complaint names as defendants Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement; three named senior immigration officials, and 85 others. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages. (Editing by Patricia Zengerle)