By Megan Burks
Last summer, police officers signaled Christian Briseño and Ricardo Gonzales to pull over their gold Cadillac near Trojan Avenue in City Heights. The pair was pretty sure they hadn’t violated any traffic laws on the 0.6-mile trip from the car repair shop where they worked to Jack In the Box. And they were certain every piece of their Cadillac, which they pampered at the shop, was in working order.
So it shook them when one of the officers said he pulled them over for a broken taillight. Something didn’t seem right.
When Gonzales couldn’t produce a driver’s license, police cuffed the men and searched the car. Police held them on the street until Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked them up. Briseño spent three weeks in the immigration detention system and is awaiting a deportation hearing. Gonzales is back in Mexico.
Should this have happened? A handful of local activists calling itself the May 1st Coalition says no. It’s mobilizing to help City Heights’ large immigrant population understand its rights during routine traffic stops and other law enforcement situations. A porous interpretation of police policy, however, complicates the task.
The San Diego Police Department told immigrants they could trust officers enforcing negligible traffic slip-ups when it amended its enforcement protocol [PDF] in 2008. Officers wouldn’t inquire about citizenship status, nor would they notify immigration authorities if a subject was found to be undocumented. At least, that’s what many Latinos and immigrants heard on the news and in community briefings.
But the specifics of the city’s promise to leave immigration enforcement to the federal government are a little less clear-cut.
Section V of the police department’s policy on adult undocumented persons [PDF] clearly states officers cannot call ICE or border patrol during the enforcement of minor traffic offenses.
The rule, however, is prefaced with the statement, “Officers are responsible for the enforcement of all laws, federal, state and local.” Being in the United States illegally is a clear violation of federal law.
A little farther down the procedure, officers are given permission to call immigration authorities if, during their investigation, they find the subject is undocumented.
David Steinberg, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said San Diego operates under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Unless something comes up in an officer’s conversation with the individual, they’ll leave it alone. If this unspoken rule is breached—when identification can’t be produced during a traffic stop, for instance—an officer can turn over the subject to immigration authorities under full protection of law. Any violation will do, he said, despite official declarations to the contrary.
Lieutenant Jorge Duran, who oversaw the unit that pulled Briseño and Gonzales over, found no fault with the pair’s release to ICE. He added that the practice of calling ICE varies from officer to officer, often depending on how long he or she is willing to wait for an ICE agent. If there are no agents nearby, the subject will likely be let go.
An incident report from Aug. 28 shows Briseño and Gonzales were held for about two hours—not for the broken taillight Briseño said police alleged, but for reckless driving. When asked about the inconsistent allegations, Lt. Duran said the decision to pull someone over is subjective.
“I wasn’t there,” he said. “If the officer thought in his mind that this was happening, then he has the right to proceed.”
Briseño said they were detained without being read their rights or accused of a crime. The search of their car yielded no evidence against them.
“I felt we were treated like animals,” said Briseño, who was brought to the United States at a young age. “We’re all humans and we all have rights.”
Briseño and Gonzales’ case highlights to the kind of inconsistent enforcement that leaves many immigrants uncertain of their rights and immigrant advocates crying foul. To them, unpredictable immigration enforcement by police amounts to racial profiling or bias against undocumented immigrants.
“I’ve heard the police chief say they would not call border patrol unless an arrest was made,” said Martin Eder, a leader of the May 1st Coalition in City Heights. “But there are rogue cops that do call.”
Briseño and Gonzales’ case is still more complicated because it happened in a gang surveillance area. According to Lt. Duran, officers in the gang unit don’t patrol traffic unless such a violation falls under pretext, a lesser infringement that allows officers to pull over and search suspected gang members. This typically happens when an informant alerts officers to gang activity.
Lt. Duran said Trojan Avenue is a known gang hotspot in City Heights. It’s unclear if a call was made to the police about Briseño and Gonzales.
Gang surveillance, which is typically focused in communities of color where many immigrants live, could provide one vehicle for targeting the undocumented population, which immigrant rights groups throughout the country insist is already happening in routine traffic stops.
In recent months, many have criticized current deportation practices under Secure Communities, a federal program that taps local law enforcement to aid in the capture and deportation of undocumented criminals. Reports show the program has netted mostly minor offenders instead of the serious criminals it intends to.
The National Immigrant Justice Center filed a class-action suit last week against the Department of Homeland Security, alleging practices under Secure Communities are a violation of the 4th Amendment.
The outrage likely spurred an announcement from the White House last week stating that DHS would halt some “low-priority” deportation cases—those involving minor offenders and immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Briseño fits the profile.
But discrepancies between what local law enforcement officials say they’ll enforce and what they actually enforce remain, leaving many in City Heights unable to trust those patrolling their streets.
Instead, they turn to a green craftsman house just blocks from the police substation, where the May 1st Coalition invites the public to learn about their rights and seek advice for friends and family awaiting deportation. There’s always the number for a good lawyer on hand.