When fare evasion leads to deportations

Everyday routines are terrifying for immigrants.

People walk past a mural painted on a border structure in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Watson
People walk past a mural painted on a border structure in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Watson

Ariel Vences-Lopez, a 23-year-old immigrant from Mexico, was on a light rail train in Minnesota earlier this month when a transit cop asked whether he was in the country illegally. Another passenger Ricardo Levins Morales filmed the incident and intervened, stopping the cop from further asking about the man’s immigration status.

An incident report later revealed that Metro Transit police used a stun gun on Vences-Lopez after he refused to sit when asked and “kept shifting his body and blading his body toward the officer. When officers grabbed his arms, he pulled away and refused verbal and physical efforts to go to the ground,” Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Vences-Lopez was later booked on suspicion of fare evasion, giving a fake name to the police, and obstructing an officer’s legal duties, the publication pointed out. After he was released from custody by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office, Vences-Lopez was turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Now he is awaiting deportation proceedings at the Sherburne County Facility in Minnesota.

“There was no reference to his immigration status in the police reports, nor did MTPD notify ICE or any other agency of any immigration-related concerns,” Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said in a recent statement. His department has since let go of the transit officer who inquired about Vences-Lopez’s immigration status. Harrington also voiced concern that the actions of his department contributed to Vences-Lopez’s detention.


“As is standard procedure, he was placed in the custody of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. We now know that on May 16th, three days before the video of the interaction was posted, he was placed in ICE custody,” Harrington added.

Vences-Lopez’s arrest likely stems in part from a systemic (and national) response by transit cops to disproportionately detain minority riders for fare evasion citations. A 2015 Metro Transit report found Native Americans were 152 percent more likely and black adults 26 percent more likely to be cited for fare evasion when compared with white riders. The overwhelming majority of discriminatory fare evasion citations or arrests against minorities also take place in cities like Los Angeles, California and New York, New York.

Five months after President Donald Trump took office, perhaps the most troubling takeaway from Vences-Lopez’s arrest is that it goes to the heart of why immigrants are afraid of public spaces: A mundane trip to work could not only literally stun you, but also put you into deportation proceedings because you live in a jurisdiction where local law enforcement officials detain and hold immigrants for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to process potential deportation proceedings.

Since becoming president, Trump has authorized a series of anti-immigrant measures that expand the kind of crimes punishable by deportation, hired more federal immigration agents, and has named and shamed law enforcement agencies refusing to detain immigrants on behalf of federal officials. In its implementation memos, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security made clear that federal agents should deport an undocumented person if they are convicted of any crime, regardless of severity.

To be clear, immigrants with low-level offenses were put into deportation proceedings by the Obama administration. That includes people caught with a small amount of marijuana and others pulled over for a broken taillight. But under Obama, federal immigration agents were encouraged to prioritize the detention of people who commit serious offenses. During his presidency, more than 90 percent of deported immigrants removed from the interior of the country were convicted of what DHS considers to be serious crimes. And he also allowed some undocumented youths to receive deportation relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative.


But as the first few months of the Trump administration has shown, nearly every undocumented immigrant, including DACA recipients, could be a priority for deportation. A Washington Post analysis from April found that half of 675 immigrants picked up in immigration raids since Trump took office “either had no criminal convictions or had committed traffic offenses, mostly drunken driving, as their most serious crimes.”

“ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” a spokeswoman for Homeland Secretary John F. Kelly said in April. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”