Pennsylvania police are not immigration agents — no matter how badly they want to be

by Vanessa Stine

Arturo Jonas Joaquin Marte and the two other passengers in their vehicle were on their way to a construction job in a work van, driving through Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, when the police lights began to flash behind them. They weren’t speeding, and the car was properly registered, inspected, and insured.

The reason for the stop was supposedly because of a license plate cover. Neither Arturo nor his co-workers could have guessed that the license plate cover was the problem. After all, the plastic didn’t obscure the plate number; in fact, the police were able to run the plates before they even stopped the car.

Still, as the police stood outside their vehicle, Arturo probably assumed that they would be issued a ticket for whatever their violation was and be sent on their way. Instead, the police detained Arturo and his co-workers in handcuffs. The police held Arturo for four hours without food, water, or access to a bathroom. Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrived. While he is now free on bond from an immigration judge, he seeks to vindicate his constitutional rights, which is why, with counsel from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, he filed a lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe and the police officers who detained him.

While Arturo’s case seeks damages (money), it champions a bedrock value that no one should be targeted by police because of how they look. The law is clear: racial profiling is illegal. Because the police officers were able to run the license plate despite their pretense that the plastic cover was the reason for the traffic stop, it is clear that the only reason that the officers pulled over Arturo and his co-workers was because they are Latino.

The officers who stopped the vehicle are police, not immigration agents. As such, they have no authority to detain anyone based on suspicions about a person’s immigration status. Since there was no citation issued and no crime charged, Arturo should not have been detained.

It is long-settled law, affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, that a person who is undocumented is not committing a crime simply by being in the country. By holding Arturo for four hours while waiting for ICE agents to show up, Jim Thorpe police were in clear violation of the law.

That’s why we’re suing.

The sad reality is, in the current political climate, racism and xenophobia are becoming more normalized. As the president continues to use language that dehumanizes and demeans immigrants and refugees while enacting policies to terrorize communities, abuses like those suffered by Arturo and his co-workers will continue.

That is why we will continue to sue police departments who engage in these abuses and defend the sacrosanct promise of liberty and justice for all.

Vanessa Stine is the Immigrants’ Rights Attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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