By EDWARD SIFUENTES - firstname.lastname@example.org
North County Times - Californian | Posted: Saturday, November 20, 2010 7:41 pm
The deportation of a 9-year-old girl, her mother and her grandmother after a minor traffic violation earlier this month has sparked criticism from immigrant rights groups, who say that law enforcement officers should not enforce immigration laws, particularly as a result of minor violations.
Minerva Santos was driving her 9-year-old daughter, Nadia, to the doctor on a recent Friday morning, when she was stopped by a San Diego County sheriff's deputy in Escondido for making an illegal turn. Less than one hour later, Santos, her daughter and her mother were turned over to U.S. Border Patrol agents and were deported.
"What the officers in this case are doing is making subjective determinations of what the right thing to do is, and they are wrong, not just on legal grounds but wrong from the perspective of needing to protect all the residents of the area," said Victor Torres, spokesman for El Grupo, an umbrella organization for civil and human rights groups.
"No one will want to report crimes, criminals will go unprosecuted, and that bodes ill for all the residents," Torres said.
Sheriff's Lt. Mike Cea said the deputy acted properly and within the department's policy on dealing with illegal immigrants.
"It was an unfortunate incident, but Deputy (Laura) Wyland was just doing her job," Cea said.
On Nov. 5, Wyland was heading south on Fig Street, Cea said. Santos was driving north on Fig Street and made an illegal turn onto Mission Avenue in front of the patrol car.
"The deputy had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision," Cea said.
The deputy stopped Santos and asked for her driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, Cea said. Santos told the deputy that she did not have a license.
Santos said in a Wednesday phone interview from Tijuana that she showed the deputy her student ID card from Palomar College, but the deputy did not accept it. The deputy asked everyone in the car for a green card, including the 9-year-old girl, she said.
"I understand that it was my fault, but she should have arrested me," Santos said. "They didn't do anything."
There was no reason to ask for the family's immigration status, Torres said. The deputy could have cited the driver and had the car impounded, but the deputy should not have called the Border Patrol, Torres said.
"What's the reason for going further?" Torres asked. "There's no reasonable suspicion that a felony occurred. What's the reason to ID the passengers?"
Cea said it's common for officers to ask if anyone else in the vehicle is licensed to see whether he or she can drive it away.
The Sheriff's Department policy prohibits deputies from stopping people simply to check their immigration status. However, deputies are allowed to ask a person's immigration status when they've been detained in connection with some other violation or crime.
Deputies are allowed to detain suspected illegal immigrants for up to an hour while waiting for immigration agents to arrive, according to the Sheriff's Department policy.
"Detention for longer than a brief period would likely be considered an arrest and not a simple detention; and therefore, would be unlawful," the policy says.
Most other local law enforcement agencies have similar policies. Many of them prohibit police officers from stopping people simply to check their immigration status. However, some of them allow officers to hold suspected illegal immigrants for a short time until immigration authorities arrive.
The Escondido Police Department's policy says officers should not detain people if their only violation is being in the country illegally. However, officers can question people who are under arrest about their immigration status, according to the policy.
When someone is cited, police officers must make "every effort to identify the subject" and may notify immigration authorities, according to the Escondido policy.
Escondido has been criticized by immigrant rights activists because of its partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has several officers working out of the city's police station.
Pedro Rios, an immigrant rights activist in San Diego, said many of the police policies on handling immigration situations are vague and give officers too much discretion. Rios said he was especially concerned by the way the 9-year-old girl was treated by the deputy.
Nadia Santos was patted down and her hands were placed behind her back before she was turned over to Border Patrol agents. The girl's 44-year-old grandmother, Alejandrina Santos, and Minerva Santos were both handcuffed. Nadia was not.
Raquel Barrios, a friend of the Santos family, said she received a frantic call from Minerva Santos saying that she had been detained. Barrios arrived within minutes and started to videotape the incident.
The video, which has been widely distributed on the Internet and Spanish-language media, shows the women sitting on the curb, then being patted down by the deputy and led to the Border Patrol vehicle.
Cea said it is standard practice to pat down people, including children, before deputies transfer custody to another agency.
Barrios said she is helping to care for two girls left behind, ages 10 and 12, who are daughters of Alejandrina Santos. The two girls live with their father in Escondido and were in school when the incident took place.
Minerva Santos said her daughter, who had lived most of her life in the U.S., was traumatized by the arrest. She said she came to the country from Guerrero, Mexico, eight years ago seeking a better life.
Rather than fight the deportation, Santos said she agreed to be removed from the country and was released in Tijuana the next day.
The three stayed briefly at a Tijuana hotel. Barrios brought warm clothes, shoes and other items to help them cope.
On Wednesday, Santos said that her daughter and mother had returned to Guerrero. She said she was temporarily staying in Tijuana with relatives.
"What I went through, I would not wish it on anyone," she said. "In an instant, your life changes because of one mistake."
Call staff writer Edward Sifuentes at 760-740-3511.