Immigration profiling issues
Over a two-hour stretch one night in April, state troopers stopped two cars on a highway in Inwood, W.Va., a little-known hamlet surrounded by apple orchards in the northeast corner of the state.
In both stops, troopers asked the vehicles' occupants, all Hispanic patrons of a nearby Latin nightclub, for identification. When some handed over Mexican driver's licenses, the troopers contacted the Pittsburgh branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained the drivers and passengers on charges of illegal entry.
Six occupants of the stopped vehicles face deportation proceedings and are challenging the police stops as unwarranted. Immigration lawyers say their clients fell victim to a pattern of racial profiling by state troopers, who they say purposely staked out motorists a mile from Lobo's, a dance club that plays "norteno" music on Saturday nights and draws largely Hispanic patrons from Winchester, Va.
The attorneys plan to ask immigration court judges to throw out these cases on the grounds that the state troopers stopped the cars because of their occupants' race.
"ICE will not tolerate racial profiling at all," said public affairs agent Mark M. Medvesky. He would not comment specifically on the Inwood stops since proceedings are pending.
Sergeant Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State Police, was also unable to comment on the Inwood stops for the same reason, but said, "We don't do racial profiling here in West Virginia. Law enforcement is in the business of criminal profiling. We do actively profile criminals, people who violate the law. But we have not, nor will we ever engage in racial profiling."
David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said this sounded like "a classic case" of racial profiling, adding, "The cops will tell you [racial profiling] is illegal and they'll tell you they don't do it. Cops will say, 'I stopped them for a legitimate reason, I ran their names and found reason to report them.' "
Tackling a racial profiling allegation will be complicated in the parallel universe of immigration court, where clients are not afforded the same protections as in criminal or civil court.
In a civil rights suit, for example, an individual can request discovery of police evidence that might help demonstrate a pattern of racism. In immigration court, there's no guarantee a judge will allow that request. One of the three Inwood attorneys, Michelle Mendez, borrowing a phrase from an immigration judge, said tackling these matters in immigration court "is like trying a death penalty case in traffic court."
Immigration lawyers say the Inwood arrests are part of a nationwide pattern of de facto crackdowns on Hispanics by state and municipal law enforcement in the spirit of the new law passed in Arizona.
"A lot of people end up in removal proceedings because of a traffic stop," said Ms. Mendez, who works out of Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. These disconnected arrests, wherever they occur, often aren't even a blip on a local community's radar, she said.
"Some of the large-scale raids like the ones during the Bush administration were terrible, but at least those provided an opportunity for everyone to come together and the media to cover each incident. The individual traffic stops of today don't even come to the public's attention. ... Immigration enforcement should be addressed with transparency and oversight -- the public deserves to know how laws are being enforced."
Sheila I. Velez-Martinez, who directs the immigration law clinic at University of Pittsburgh, also has noticed a trend:
"We are unfortunately seeing a pattern of people who look Latino being detained in the region without state-related charges. Most of our Latino clients started their road towards deportation from a traffic stop. In most cases, there was no traffic sanction imposed on the clients and the stated reason for the initial detention seems but a pretext for stopping clients for being brown or Latino."
One case from Ms. Velez-Martinez's clinic involves a pair of construction workers who were having lunch on the porch of a house in Beechview. Police officers approached them because they said a neighbor reported someone was ringing doorbells and running away.
The men explained they had permission to be at the house: The owners had left them the keys. Police ultimately arrested the men for being in the country illegally. No criminal charges were filed.
Another client told the Pitt immigration clinic last month he had been approached by officers when he was standing on the grass beside a bus stop. Officers told him he was standing someplace where it was illegal to stand, but the only formal charge issued for his detention was illegal entry to the U.S.
Many deportation arrests like those at the Pitt clinic or the Inwood cases slip through the cracks before a qualified lawyer gets a look at them, attorneys said. An Amnesty International report in 2009 found that among individuals facing removal proceedings in Pennsylvania, 84 percent of detained immigrants and 58 percent of all clients did not have attorneys.
Valerie Burch, an American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania attorney representing three Inwood cases, said after troopers booked the two cars' occupants at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, W.Va., none of the suspects was able to phone potential attorneys, or notify family members or day care providers of their whereabouts for three days.
The phones at the jail did not work, they said.
The group came to the attention of a lawyer when they were taken to York County Prison, an East Coast hub for ICE that processes thousands of detainees facing deportation each year.
The Inwood clients ranged in age from 27 to 36 and had lived in the U.S. between three and 10 years. Four lived in a rented house together in Winchester, Va., another lived elsewhere in town and the sixth came from Riverdale, Md.
Collectively, the detainees were parents to three children -- U.S. citizens -- under the age of 5. Their attorneys declined to reveal their names to prevent jeopardizing the cases. Names of respondents in immigration filings are not publicly available information.
A 36-year-old cleaning woman was driving the car stopped at 1:30 a.m. on April 25. The woman had agreed to take her boyfriend dancing at Lobo's nightclub to celebrate his birthday. She didn't have any alcohol at the club.
The couple offered a ride home to a man who was also from Winchester. State troopers stopped them near state Route 51 at the on ramp to Interstate 81 south, about a mile from Lobo's.
A 27-year-old construction worker was driving the car stopped at 3 a.m. He had arrived at Lobo's around 11 p.m. His buddy who had driven there drank two or three beers, and asked the 27-year-old to drive the car -- with him and three other friends -- home. Police pulled them over at the same on ramp.
When the trooper came to his window, he said the driver failed to stop at a stop sign. (The ACLU found no stop sign at the intersection during a field visit six months later.)
During a recent phone interview in Spanish, the man explained, "I hadn't broken any law. The truth is I didn't have a license, but before that I hadn't done anything wrong. The police didn't give me a ticket for any violation. They didn't give me a ticket for anything."
Troopers asked for names and identification for the three occupants of the first car and the five occupants of the second. Some showed Mexican IDs, some didn't have any. The troopers gave their names to ICE officers at the Pittsburgh field office who ran them through an immigration database.
The troopers did not cite either Inwood driver for any traffic violation. ICE issued detainers remotely on the grounds that all three people in the first car and all five in the second were Mexican nationals and were unlawfully present in the U.S. One of the eight individuals opted not to fight deportation; another was transferred to another jurisdiction.
The six Inwood cases are inching forward in immigration court, which operates differently from what most people picture when they think of a court. Immigration court is not under the judicial branch -- it's an administrative body under the executive branch of the federal government, which means clients aren't guaranteed the right to a lawyer and other constitutional protections.
The burden of proof shifts back and forth between the government and the client. Respondents are not guaranteed discovery.
There aren't hard and fast rules about evidence; judges have a lot of discretion.
The police officer who made an immigration stop need not be present in court, an investigation form that may or may not have been conducted in the client's language is often a sufficient substitute.
Ofelia Calderon, who represents two Inwood clients, said it would also be a challenge to suppress the law enforcement evidence about the clients' immigration status, since motions to suppress so rarely make headway in immigration court.
Ms. Burch, of the ACLU, offered a preview of what she will tell the judge.
"I think there were many arrests of Hispanic motorists leaving Lobo's in recent months. ... Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's what used to happen down South to the African-American population.
"When people used to get together in one place they would be persecuted by law enforcement. Police would find any reason to stop them and harass them because of the color of their skin," she said.
First Published November 22, 2010 12:00 am