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For undocumented immigrants, the ‘sanctuary city’ of Minneapolis doesn’t feel much like a sanctuary

Even with Minneapolis’ immigrant separation ordinance on the books, city officials are quick to point out the limits of what the ordinance law can do. 

Like many major cities across the country, Minneapolis’ status as a “sanctuary city” is based on its immigration separation ordinance, which prevents its personnel and police officers from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Among the big stories that dominated the headlines in recent weeks was the light-rail incident in which a Metro Transit police officer was caught on video checking a passenger’s immigration status in Minneapolis.

In the 35-second clip, officer Andy Lamers approaches Ariel Vences-Lopez on the Blue Line train and asks for his name, state identification and whether he lives in the United States “legally.”

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Viewed amid a national debate over immigration and the role that local law enforcement should play in the federal government’s push to detain and deport undocumented residents, the video quickly went viral, becoming the subject of intense news coverage. 

Metro Transit’s protocols do not authorize its police officers to ask people for immigration documents or arrest them based on their status, and the agency quickly launched an internal investigation into the incident. By the end of May, Lamers had quit the department. 

The episode has also become the talk of the town among undocumented residents, though not because it respresented anything unusual. Instead, for many  the video simply affirmed why they’ve become increasingly skeptical about what it means to live in a so-called “sanctuary city” like Minneapolis, a place widely seen as having policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Limits on what the city can do

Like many major cities across the country, Minneapolis’ status as a “sanctuary city” is based on its immigration separation ordinance, which prevents its personnel and police officers from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals.

Even with the ordinance on the books, city officials are quick to point out the limits of what the ordinance can do. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges says that while she’s fond of the city’s separation ordinance, she doesn’t want people think that it can shield undocumented immigrants from expatriation. “I myself don’t use the phrase ‘sanctuary city,’ ” Hodges said. “I don’t want to overpromise what the city can do.”

Moreover, the separation ordinance doesn’t apply to Metro Transit, the Minnesota State Patrol or other law enforcement officials that also operate within the city. Each of these agencies has its own practices and procedures that may or may not line up with the policies and priorities of the city. 

Metro Transit, for example, doesn’t allow its officers to ask individuals about their immigration status, even though Lamers did just that during the light-rail incident.

Mayor Betsy Hodges
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Mayor Betsy Hodges

Even so, the interaction wasn’t a surprise to Juan Linares, the interim manager for Mercado Central, a business and social hub for the Latino community. That’s because Linares and others in his community know of several undocumented immigrants with no criminal records who have been approached by local law enforcement, transferred to ICE and eventually expatriated from the country.

“We don’t know when they happen,” he said. “But we find out about them later, either here at the Mercado or at church.”

Just a couple of weeks before the recent incident on the light rail, Linares said, a driver was stopped in front of the U.S. Postal Service on 31st Street in Minneapolis, waiting for her sister, when she was approached by an officer from the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).  

According to Linares, the officer asked the driver about her “document,” a question Linares says has become a new way for some local officers to find out more information about Latino residents they come across.

They ask, “Do you have any documents on you?” he said, noting that the question is different from asking for a driver’s license. “When you ask them that question, they become confused, maybe intimidated. And that’s what the officers want.”

The driver, who was undocumented, was arrested and eventually deported. “And that incident was not captured in any shape or form of video,” Linares added. 

Scott Seroka, a public information officer with MPD, declined to comment on the allegation, saying that it’s one anecdotal case that can’t be verified.

When asked about the department’s policies with regard to inquiring about people’s immigration status, Seroka referred to a prepared statement on MPD’s website, which notes: “Public safety officials shall not undertake any law enforcement action for the purpose of detecting the presence of undocumented persons, or to verify immigration status, including but not limited to questioning any person or persons about their immigration status.”

Increased ICE presence

Immigration advocates and community leaders have also reported an increased level of fear among unauthorized Minnesota residents over the presence of federal law enforcement officials in Minneapolis, especially those from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Months before the light-rail incident, some leaders in the Latino community shared photos via social media of federal officers who they said were seen with Metro Transit officers — information that caused some undocumented immigrants to become reluctant to use public transportation, go to work, attend community events or even go out to shopping malls.

“Our community is fleeing the blunt terror by the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the nation,” Juve Meza, a Mexican-American activist, wrote on Facebook in March. “OUR public transportation system should not be feared.”

In recent months, undocumented residents — including those with no violent criminal record and those waiting for court processing — have been bracing for increased activity by ICE in both the Twin Cities metro area and in communities in Greater Minnesota, said John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

John Keller
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
John Keller

“We’re beginning to hear of an increased presence of ICE officers in the court system, waiting for people while they’re in the middle of some part of their court process,” said Keller. “We’re hearing of interactions even with people who are checking in with probation officers.”

Leaders of Minneapolis’ Church of the Incarnation, which has the largest Spanish-speaking congregation in the state, have similar stories. Brad Capouch, an administrator with the church, talked about a man who was driving with his child to child care a couple of months ago, when ICE officers stopped him on Lake Street in Minneapolis and asked for documents.

Because the driver was unauthorized and had returned to the U.S. after having been deported previously, he couldn’t provide documents. He was subsequently arrested and deported, Capouch said.

“He had no misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors that would be part of the civil criminality that we know here,” Capouch said. “He was not given an opportunity to defend himself or have others come in and help him stay in the country.”

Capouch says that undocumented immigrants have become particularly wary of bus stops in south Minneapolis. The spots are seen as targets for ICE agents to make arrests or, at minimum, places where people will be asked to show their immigration documents.

“The mayor and the chief of police saying we’re a sanctuary city gives the community at least some reassurance,” Capouch said. “[But] the incident of the train, unfortunately, challenges that policy.”