Blog Archive

Friday, October 28, 2011

Protecting illegal immigrants to catch criminals

Minneapolis Star Tribune

28 October 2011

AUSTIN, Minn. - It was after 1 a.m. when the policeman arrived at Patricia Sanchez's house, and he understood in a glance why she had dialed 911. Her face was streaked with scratches and her neck bore the red imprint of a man's hand.

"You're lucky to be alive," he said. He arrested her husband for domestic violence with intent to strangle and told the young woman to get an order for protection as soon as the courthouse opened.

The next morning, before returning to work at her packinghouse job, Sanchez stood at a court clerk's window, filling out a piece of paper supposedly strong enough to stop abuse.

While Sanchez waited at the courthouse, though, police were at her home, searching for evidence that her husband was an illegal immigrant. Rummaging through drawers and bedding, an officer noticed a framed photograph on the living room wall. It depicted a woman identified as Lisa Salazar in her white work uniform and hard hat, honored as Quality Pork Processors' Employee of the Month.

Except that Salazar looked exactly like Patricia Sanchez. Police also found documents suggesting Sanchez had committed identity fraud to get work and receive benefits for her children.

A week later, Sanchez sat bewildered in the Mower County jail, facing immigration charges and the threat of deportation back to Mexico. The victim had become a suspect.

The frightening June night in 2009 transformed Sanchez's life -- and now it has thrust Mower County into the vanguard of a national struggle over illegal immigration, policing and crime.

Today, after more than a year of soul-searching over law and justice, Mower County has a striking new policy: Illegal immigrants who become victims of violent crime will not be charged with document offenses, giving them immunity to aid the prosecution of more serious, violent felonies.

In Austin, a storied meatpacking town of 24,700 near the Iowa border, the issue has been pushed to the fore by an unlikely voice: Jeremy Clinefelter, the tough-minded assistant prosecutor who helped deport Sanchez's husband and then charged her with felony fraud.

"It didn't feel right morally," Clinefelter said. "We're prosecutors. But more that, we're here to be fair and just."

Mower County may be unique in the Upper Midwest, according to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. But its new approach, he said, could have wider repercussions by removing a form of blackmail used against illegal immigrants.

"The abuser says, 'You can't go to the police, or I'm going to tell them you're here illegally,' " Beaumaster said. "It's a legitimate use of prosecutorial discretion in assuring that a defendant doesn't get to use our immigration laws as a weapon."

Since Congress created a program called Secure Communities in 2007, local police and prosecutors across the country have been playing an ever-larger role in enforcing federal immigration law. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have been arrested and deported, often in a process that started with a routine traffic stop or a set of fingerprints taken at a county jail.

But one question keeps arising: How can police and prosecutors build trust in growing ethnic communities when illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding fear they will face arrest and deportation if they step forward to report crime?

Secure Communities places a priority on catching dangerous illegal immigrants convicted of violent felonies, yet federal documents show that one-fourth of the immigrants deported under the act had no criminal convictions.

At least five states have dropped out of the program in the past year, amid concerns about the potential for abusive and counterproductive tactics.

In Minnesota, however, some influential lawmakers are eager to have the state participate, even though that's not mandatory until 2013.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who pressed the legislation last spring, says the issue has been unfairly politicized. "I agree we should have amnesty programs for victims and witnesses who report crimes," she said. "But if we're going to house them in our jails or in our custody, we want to find out whether they're here illegally."

But civil liberties lawyers -- and some prominent lawmen -- disagree.

"You're going to put the community in an adversarial position with their police," says John Harrington, a state senator and former St. Paul police chief. "You're taking out the people who are in the best position to tell us about dangerous people in our community."

He soon found that, geographically and emotionally, Austin sat at the center of an immigration wave roiling southern Minnesota. The big meatpacking plants across the state's southern tier required an endless supply of workers willing to do grueling, dangerous jobs for modest wages. People willing to travel thousands of miles from the Texas-Mexico border for low wages satisfied it.

But there was a hidden cost to the boom. Austin had hundreds of residents with two, sometimes three, different names. They had purchased stolen IDs from brokers along the Mexican border or once they arrived in the Midwest. That meant there were also hundreds of victims of identity theft somewhere -- crime victims who suffered because of immigrants seeking work.

From 2000 to 2009, the Hispanic population in Mower County more than doubled, to nearly 3,500, part of a larger immigration wave statewide. Clinefelter's stolen-identity caseload was running at 50 to 70 files per year by 2005, most of them illegal immigrants. He'd become the office expert on document crimes.

As a teenager, Patricia Sanchez had risked her life crossing the Mexican border and the treacherous Sonoran Desert to get to the United States for a better life. Now, in the summer of 2009, she found herself in a Sherburne County jail cell leased by federal immigration authorities. Her sister in California had taken the children.

"People at immigration see us as criminals," she recalled. "I told them: 'I came here to work. I don't use drugs, I don't drink. I am not a bad person."

Meanwhile, her case had been taken up by a St. Paul attorney, former Ramsey County District Judge Alberto Miera. He argued that the police had conducted an illegal search of Sanchez's purse and wanted the fraud case dismissed.

Finally, the attorneys agreed to go to trial on a charge of simple forgery, still a felony. A judge found Sanchez guilty. She received a year's stay, marked down to a misdemeanor if she obeyed the law.

Then, satisfied with a finding of guilt, Clinefelter and Nelsen took a step on Sanchez's behalf -- the crucial step that could save her from deportation. They supported her application for a special visa granted to victims of domestic violence, a document known as a U-Visa. It worked.

By that fall, Sanchez was released from federal custody, reunited with her children, and back at work on the cutting line at Quality Pork.