Discrimination case highlights police bias toward immigrants, advocates say

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer frisks a migrant worker.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer frisks a migrant worker.

Last February, a sergeant with the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department pulled over Kerry Martin for speeding. Martin, a recent UVM graduate, came away from the incident with a warning, but a passenger was pulled from the car and detained for hours by federal agents.

That passenger, Lorenzo Alcudia, is a Mexican national working on a dairy farm in Alburgh. Martin, who is white, and Alcudia were on their way to a meeting of the advocacy group Migrant Justice. During the traffic stop Sgt. Blake Allen repeatedly asked if Alcudia was “supposed to be here,” documents show.

U.S. Border Patrol Agents were called to the scene and detained Alcudia, who now faces deportation.

Advocates for immigrant rights say the case shows that Vermont police are still attempting to enforce federal immigration law, despite years of activism and new state laws and policies designed to protect migrant workers.

Too frequently, advocates say, the rights of Vermont’s roughly 1,500 migrant farm workers are being trampled.

Alcudia filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission contending that Sgt. Allen illegally discriminated against him by questioning his immigration status and detaining him without a reasonable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity.

Following an investigation, the Human Rights Commission found there is “reasonable grounds” to believe that Sgt. Allen illegally discriminated against Alcudia during the routine traffic stop.

Speaking through an interpreter Thursday, Alcudia said he filed the complaint because he wants police to follow the laws that protect his rights.

Robert Appel, an attorney and former executive director of the Human Right’s Commission, is representing Alcudia in the civil proceeding. Appel said he will push for a settlement that gives his client monetary compensation and guarantees that the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department will “change its practice of detaining persons who are riding while brown.”

In a 32-page report summarizing its investigation, the Human Rights Commission says Alcudia’s skin color and national origin “played a chief role” in the way he was treated during the traffic stop, and that there is “overwhelming evidence” that Sgt. Allen was “primarily interested” in Alcudia’s legal status.

Robert Appel

Attorney Robert Appel. File photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

The Human Rights Commission and the Grand Isle Sheriff’s department are in the early stages of negotiating a settlement, according to Karen Richards, the commission’s executive director. Grand Isle Sheriff Ray Allen, Sgt. Allen’s father, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Alcudia’s case is remarkably similar to that of Danilo Lopez, an activist with Migrant Justice, who in 2011 was a passenger in car pulled over on I-89 for speeding. After failing to produce identification, state police handed him over to the U.S. Border Patrol, setting in motion a deportation proceeding that Lopez fought successfully.

Lopez’s case led the Vermont State Police to put in place a new policy that prevents state police from requesting IDs and referring undocumented workers to Border Patrol when there’s no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

When Martin challenged Sgt. Allen’s right to ask for Alcudia’s ID, a recording of the incident shows Sgt. Allen responded that “I don’t have to follow that rule, I’m not State Police,” according to the investigation report.

A law passed in 2014 requires all state law enforcement agencies to have bias-free policing policies, and municipal and state police officers are required to abide by those policies.

The Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department put an anti-bias policy in place in 2014, but according to the investigation, “while superficially strong” the policy “offered little to no protection to Mr. Alcudia due (sic) the many potential exceptions that swallow the rule and allow searches and seizures” without reasonable suspicion.

Brendan O’Neil, with Migrant Justice, who advocated for the bias-free policing law, said changes in policy are not translating into changes in policing culture and police attitudes toward immigrants and immigration status.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O’Neill, Migrant Justice. File Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

“We’re now in 2015 and we have a sheriff’s department that is supposed to have a policy in place and know their policy, asking the driver ‘Is he supposed to be here’ referring to the passenger,” O’Neil said.

Appel said that regardless of a particular department or agencys’ bias policy, Sgt. Allen still violated state anti-discrimination law. “The law in this state is, once the reason for the stop has been cleared, any extension of that is an unlawful seizure of that person,” he said.

Vermont immigrants face huge challenges in fighting deportation

Alcudia is 25 and has lived in Vermont for four years. He said he would like to stay here and continue working as a farm laborer.

After the February traffic stop, Border Patrol Agents issued Alcudia a citation releasing him on personal recognizance, but he must appear in immigration court for a deportation proceeding.

No date has been set, Alcudia said, but he worries that he won’t be able to stay in the United States.

Erin Jacobsen, an attorney with the South Royalton Legal Clinic, says Alcudia’s fears are well-founded, and fighting deportation is an uphill battle, especially for people who lack resources.

Lopez, who was able to successfully fight deportation mounted a high-profile public campaign. His efforts yielded letters of support from Gov. Peter Shumlin and all three member of Vermont’s congressional delegation.

The deportation process is run through a civil administrative court operated by the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS immigration court for the New England region is located in Boston.

Attorneys can appear by video conference, but those facing deportation must be there in person. For many migrant workers in Vermont, the travel requirement alone can make fighting deportation insurmountable, Jacobsen said.

Danilo Lopez

Danilo Lopez, right, is fought extradition from the U.S. File photo/Taylor Dobbs/VTDigger

“It’s also really hard to find legal help for these kinds of cases,” Jacobsen said, and without legal help it becomes an “overwhelmingly difficult process.”

Unlike a criminal case in which the government provides poor defendants with court-appointed attorneys, there is no right to counsel in deportation proceedings.

Alcudia said he does not have an attorney for the deportation process, and no one is helping him prepare for the legal challenges ahead.

Jacobsen said free legal counsel for people facing deportation is not available in Vermont.

In a deportation proceeding, the government must prove a person is a foreign national who is not in the country lawfully. Alcudia can ask for evidence gathered making that case, such as the evidence gathered during the February traffic stop and his subsequent detention by Border Patrol, to be suppressed if it was obtained in violation of the law.

However, there is a “really high bar” for proving evidence in a deportation proceeding should be suppressed, Jacobsen said. The person facing deportation must show the evidence was gathered through an “egregious” violation of their rights.

“The cards are really stacked against these folks,” Jacobsen said.

Morgan True

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