By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Hugo Vinicio Hernandez knew that immigration agents could detain him at any time for having disregarded a deportation order in 2001. But the Guatemalan man didn't think he would wind up in the custody of immigration agents as a result of a routine traffic stop.
He was deported after being pulled over by a Takoma Park police officer in January.
It's a fate that a growing number of illegal immigrants are facing as federal officials add hundreds of thousands of names of people with outstanding deportation orders into the FBI-run National Crime Information Center database, which police officers use to search for warrants.
In Montgomery County, about 60 people have been taken into custody by police officers on immigration warrants since last year. Officers elsewhere in the region, including jurisdictions with large immigrant populations such as the District and Fairfax and Prince William counties, said that they also enforce civil immigration warrants.
Although the numbers are relatively low, they are expected to increase regionally and nationally as more records are uploaded, which concerns immigrant advocates and some local police officials.
"It's very important for the local police department to develop strong relationships with the community," said Montgomery police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who has made reaching out to recent immigrants a priority. "That trust is being jeopardized."
Supporters of the effort say that enlisting the help of police officers to identify and remove the roughly 600,000 immigrants who are thought to have outstanding deportation orders is long overdue.
But two police associations have lobbied against the inclusion, saying that by acting on the warrants, departments risk alienating recent immigrants, a segment of the community that has historically had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement agencies. That, they say, is likely to hinder cooperation from witnesses and victims of violent crimes who are in the country unlawfully.
Separately, immigrant advocacy organizations are suing the government, saying that it had no legal standing to add administrative records to what has traditionally been a database for criminal warrants. Disregarding a deportation order is a violation of administrative, not criminal, law.
Because many outstanding deportation orders date back several years and in some cases don't reflect the person's current immigration status, some law enforcement officials and immigrant advocates say they fear that people could get picked up because of sloppy record keeping. The problem is compounded because some immigrants are ordered deported in hearings that can be held in their absence. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it screens records carefully before adding them to the database.
Since the government began adding immigration warrants to the database in 2002, authorities have identified more than 25,000 fugitives, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The database "is an effective force multiplier that leverages the resources of law enforcement officers throughout the United States who, in the course of their daily duties, encounter criminal and fugitive aliens wanted by" the agency, said Michael Keegan, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman.
Manger and other area police chiefs have concluded that they are duty-bound to enforce all National Crime Information Center warrants, even at the expense of being perceived as an extension of the immigration bureaucracy.
Despite the relatively small number of arrests in Montgomery, immigrant advocates have told Manger that the unexpected deportations have torn families apart and sown fear among immigrants.
Hernandez entered the United States illegally in September 2000 through the Mexican border. He joined relatives in Hyattsville, found work as a welder and began dating a Guatemalan woman. Their two sons, a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old, were born in Maryland.
He was driving to work about 5:30 a.m. Jan. 30 when an officer pulled him over on New Hampshire Avenue after Hernandez changed lanes abruptly. Officer Michael Collins ran his name through the FBI database -- which is routine for traffic stops -- and found the immigration warrant. Hernandez was handcuffed and taken to a police station. When Brenda Cruz, his common-law wife, arrived at the station, she wasn't allowed to see him, she said.
Fuming, she says, she told Collins: "I hope this never happens to you. Today, my kids lost their father."
As the officer drove Hernandez from the police station to the county jail in Rockville, where he was to be picked up by immigration officers, Collins told Hernandez he took no pleasure in taking him into custody, Hernandez said recently from Guatemala.
" 'If you had told me from the start about your kids, I would have let you go,' " Hernandez said the officer told him. A Takoma Park police spokesman said Collins recalls the conversation differently.
"He did indicate that he regretted this, but he had to do his job," said Takoma Park police spokesman Cpl. Andrew John.
The database, by design, is a repository of criminal records. A few noncriminal records have been introduced, including missing-persons files and protective orders for victims of domestic violence. Congress authorized the inclusion of deported felons' records in 1996 to help authorities identify those who reenter the country illegally. Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to authorize the inclusion of civil immigration warrants in the database.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Department of Justice issued an opinion concluding that local law enforcement agencies have broad authority to enforce immigration laws, a departure from Justice opinions drafted in 1996 and 1989 that laid out a narrower role for police officers in enforcing immigration laws. The new opinion coincided with the inclusion of absconders' files in the database.
A U.S. District Court judge in New York ordered the government to remove civil immigration records from the database in June 2004 after ruling in favor of a man who sued the government after the D.C. police department withdrew a job offer when it found an immigration record through the database.
After the government agreed to expunge the man's record, the judge backed down from ordering it to purge all other immigration records from the database.
A federal judge has dismissed another suit filed by the National Council of La Raza and other civil rights and immigrant rights organizations seeking to have the civil files purged, but that case is under appeal.
The database contains about 247,500 Immigration and Customs Enforcement warrants, according to the agency. More than half are administrative warrants for people who have old deportation orders, and the rest are records of deported felons.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association have opposed the inclusion of noncriminal immigration warrants in the database. A handful of jurisdictions have devised policies regarding the immigration warrants.
In Houston, for example, officials reached an arrangement with the local U.S. attorney and immigration offices in which the police department agrees to arrest people on administrative immigration warrants only if federal authorities intend to file criminal charges against them.
At least two other jurisdictions, Chapel Hill, N.C., and New Haven, Conn., have decided not to enforce the immigration warrants, saying that acting on them would burden them with what is essentially a failed federal government policy and would potentially alienate victims and witnesses of crimes.
Brenda Cruz was a victim of a home invasion in 2002. She called the police in that case, which remains unsolved. Last month, after discovering that someone had broken into her van, she decided against reporting it.
"I haven't called them, because who knows how many questions they're going to ask," she said recently, sitting in living room of her mother's Hyattsville apartment, where she now lives.
In letters Hernandez wrote to Cruz from a jail in Salisbury, Md., before he was deported, he urged her to file their federal income taxes on time and asked her not to tell the children that he was getting deported. But the 5-year-old found out, Cruz said.
"He used to be a playful boy," Cruz said. "Now he doesn't want to leave the house. He's terrified of the police."
Cruz also came to the country illegally and is gathering documents to apply for a visa for victims of crime.
Weeks after Hernandez was taken into custody, his sister went to District Court in Rockville with his traffic citation in hand. She paid the $90 fee to relieve her brother of outstanding fines.
The officer hasn't submitted the citation to the court, according to court records, probably under the assumption that it would go unpaid.
The cashier's office accepted the payment anyway.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.