Suburban police accused of racially profiling of Latinos
Melody Luchuck sits in her apartment with her wedding dress across her lap, holding a photo of herself with her fiance, Eduardo Vielma, who's awaiting deportation.
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Four years after meeting at a Robinson restaurant, Melody Luchuck and Eduardo Vielma decided to marry, planning a simple ceremony at the Phipps Conservatory.
But two weeks before the Aug. 15 event, Robinson police detained Mr. Vielma and his brother, Alberto, both undocumented Mexican immigrants. They now face deportation.
The brothers were taken into police custody after an employee at Kohl's department store accused Alberto Vielma of shoplifting. He called Eduardo Vielma, who came to the store with his boss from nearby Pizza Milano.
Robinson officers asked both Vielma brothers for identification, even though Eduardo Vielma hadn't been accused of anything, according to a police report. Officers didn't ask Eduardo Vielma's boss, Ercan Yali, for identification.
The Vielmas admitted to being in the country illegally, the report said. Robinson Officer Matthew Maritz called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and turned the pair over.
Local immigrant advocates describe the case as a blatant example of racial profiling involving some Allegheny County police departments and the region's small but growing Latino community. They argue that local police shouldn't contact federal authorities unless they are doing a background check on a criminal suspect -- and Eduardo Vielma was not a suspect at the time of his arrest.
"Only the brown person was asked for ID," said Jacqueline Martinez, a Downtown immigration attorney who is representing Eduardo Vielma and Ms. Luchuck. "The police have no business asking anyone about immigration status unless they ask everyone."
Sister Janice Vanderneck, director of social service ministry at the Latino Catholic Community, a diocesan-sponsored center in Oakland, said suburban police departments are stopping Latino immigrants for "doing nothing" at least several times a week.
Police officials express sympathy with the region's newest immigrants. But they say they can't turn a blind eye to illegal activity, and they deny any systematic effort to target Latinos.
Robinson Police Chief Dale Vietmeier, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, said local police departments need more training on how to deal with immigration issues. But he defended his 26-officer department against charges of racial profiling.
"We don't just go out and look for somebody minding their own business," he said. "We don't harass them, we don't go after them."
Moon Police Chief Leo McCarthy said he had received no complaints about his officers.
"We never question someone's citizenship for just walking down the street," he said.
Still, both chiefs have noticed a significant increase in encounters with illegal immigrants in the last several years. Chief McCarthy said his department now calls ICE about once a month. On Sept. 4, an immigrant was arrested and handed over to federal officials after he caused a three-car pile-up in Moon.
Police departments can participate in an ICE program that trains local officers to enforce immigration laws. But no Pennsylvania departments are part of the program, according to ICE's Web site.
"Let the professionals handle this. We don't need Robinson Township officers doing this," Ms. Martinez said. "They don't know what they're doing."
ICE officials don't offer local departments advice on how to handle suspected illegal immigrants, according to Michael W. Gilhooly, the agency's northeast regional communications director. The departments set their own policies.
"It's not something ICE has control over," he said. "We're certainly available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond. We'll check the immigration status of any foreign-born person in their custody if they request it."
Since May of last year, Ms. Martinez said, she has taken on about 20 cases involving immigrants who were stopped by police and inappropriately questioned about their legal status. One immigrant was pulled over for having a broken taillight. Another was walking down the side of a highway. Yet another was painting a house.
Such encounters, Ms. Martinez said, could lead to lasting tensions between law enforcement officials and immigrants, both legal and illegal.
Deportations already have broken up local immigrant families, sometimes separating parents from children who have citizenship, advocates say.
Vidal Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Pittsburgh, said he is now afraid to go near Robinson after police there picked up his cousin, Efrain Sanchez, and a female friend Aug. 17 while they were sitting in a parked car on Campbells Run Road.
Around 9:30 p.m. that evening, Robinson's Officer Maritz -- who had been involved in detaining the Vielma brothers -- approached the car and asked Efrain Sanchez to roll down the window, according to a police report. Mr. Sanchez handed over a Mexican identification and an international driver's license. The woman had no identification.
According to Efrain Sanchez's cousin, Officer Maritz told the pair, "You have no right to be in this country."
The officer then called ICE and put an agent on the phone with Mr. Sanchez and his companion. The agent told Officer Maritz they were in the U.S. illegally. He said ICE would detain them.
Chief Vietmeier defended the officer's actions: "Is it unusual for an officer to check on something like that? I don't think so."
But he did express regret about Ms. Luchuck's situation.
When she told her story last week at an Oakland meeting between police officials and Latino immigrants, he was visibly moved. He addressed the group and put his arm around the bride-to-be.
"I couldn't help but think of this young lady missing her wedding. It happened in my community," he said. "I apologize and will make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else, and we will work through this together."
The meeting room, with about 100 people, erupted in applause and cheers.
Ms. Luchuck met Eduardo Vielma when she first moved the Pittsburgh about four years ago and found a job waiting tables at Bahama Breeze in Robinson. Mr. Vielma was a dishwasher there.
She had studied some Spanish in school, and they soon started dating. During one of their early dates, he made a confession to her: "You know I'm a 'wetback,' right?"
He told her how he had crossed illegally into the U.S. in search of a better life. He stayed briefly with family in Los Angeles and then came to Pittsburgh after a relative told him it was a good place.
Ms. Luchuck still wanted to pursue the relationship.
"I wasn't happy how he got here," she said, "but I was really glad he was here."
The day of Mr. Vielma's detention, Ms. Luchuck was planning to pick up her future brother-in-law, Alberto Vielma, and take him to get his tuxedo for the wedding. She said Alberto Vielma hadn't been trying to steal anything from Kohl's; he was carrying around a pair of shoes that had been on display, looking for a store employee who could give him a box.
According to a police report, a Kohl's employee accused Alberto Vielma of taking the shoes, three pairs of shorts and four t-shirts.
The shoplifting charges were later dropped against Alberto Vielma, who is being held at a detention center in Texas. This month, an immigration judge in York said Eduardo Vielma could be released on a $5,000 bond and gave him 90 days to leave the U.S. on his own.
He was freed from a York prison on Thursday night, Ms. Luchuck said. They plan to marry before his deportation deadline, Dec. 2.
Her lawyer said Mr. Vielma may have to wait about two years before he can return to the U.S. legally. He officially faces a 10-year ban on entry, but he and Ms. Luchuck may be able to bypass that if they claim the separation causes family hardship.
Ms. Luchuck said she never doubts her choice to be with Mr. Vielma. And, if they can't figure out a way for him to return to the U.S., she's willing to leave her own country behind.
"I would go to the end of the Earth for him," she said. "If it means having to move to Mexico or Spain or Canada, or anywhere, that's what I'm going to do."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 19, 2008) This front page story as originally published Sept. 15, 2008 incorrectly said Sister Janice Vanderneck, director of social service ministry at the Latino Catholic Community in Oakland, identified police departments in Robinson, Monroeville, Coraopolis and Moon in connection with complaints about officers inappropriately stopping Latino immigrants and asking about their legal status. Sister Janice did not identify specific police departments.
First Published September 15, 2008 12:00 am