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

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
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.

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.”

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.”  

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Evan Stanley on 06/05/2017 - 11:43 am.


    The proper, legal term is removed. (Deported hasn’t been the legal word since the 90’s.) Expatriate implies a degree of volition.

  2. Submitted by mark nupen on 06/05/2017 - 12:14 pm.

    what is your immigration story?

    Glad to see transit officer Lamers resigned. He did this on his own prejudices and not the city’s behalf.

    Mr. Lamers most likely does not know his own family’s ‘immigration story’, which is the case for many of my friends who often are strongly opposed to illegal immigrants. They often believe their immigrant families “all knew English” when they got here which is absurd of course unless they came from England.
    They don’t realize that most in the 1800s just got off the boat with no restrictions.

    Our own family immigration stories should be remembered as a way to understand what it was like ‘back in the old days’. Check out your own immigration story unless of course you are a native american. Even then your family stories are very important to our American story even if quite tragic. Tell others your family immigration or native american stories for the rest of us to learn and understand from it!!!

  3. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/05/2017 - 12:30 pm.

    Just a simple question

    If the majority of you reading this comment were to be asked to show your “immigration documents”, what would you be able to produce? Does the term “inapplicable” come to mind?

    This is profiling, plain and simple.

  4. Submitted by Hugh Trent on 06/05/2017 - 01:05 pm.

    Reply to Mark Nupen

    Hi, I know my immigration story. I’m first generation Irish in the US. My mother had to leave the farm at 16 and work in Dublin until age 21.

    When my Mom came here, the state of NY made sure she had a financial sponsor and a mentor. It was her Uncle Jimmy.
    He had to prove with a bank account to New York that he had enough money to support her in the City in case her job failed. It was what we would consider and Escrow account now.

    She got a job the first week she was here legally, and after 6 months found a small flat in a seedy side of Brooklyn and worked here way up to the suburbs.

    There was no food stamps or Section Eight available.

    Now Mark this was the Old days. Quite different now !

    Come to the United States legally and add to society and we will take all law abiding immigrants .

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/05/2017 - 01:30 pm.

      All Well and Good, but . . .

      If you were stopped by the police on the street today, would you be able to prove it? How?

      Of course, we know the likelihood of you being asked to prove your immigration status.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/05/2017 - 05:21 pm.

      Old days

      Ah yes, the romanticized immigration story about hard work and doing things the right way.

      Most of my ancestors are Irish. Many came over during the potato famine in the mid-1800s. They didn’t have relatives with money, so they got their financial backing by agreeing to be indentured servants. It was not easy essentially selling yourself into slavery, but when the option was starvation and death, you take what you can get. Even when freed from their servitude, Irish immigrants faced horrible discrimination. The old days were not so great and not so fair.

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 06/06/2017 - 08:13 am.

        Doing things the right way

        What’s wring with that? Most undocumented people are not doing it the right way and it is causing a tremendous strain on our system for those that are here that are following the law.
        We seem to give people who are outside the law more protections and attention than those that are doing the right thing.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/06/2017 - 10:42 am.


          It is not creating a tremendous strain. Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are a boon to the economy. There will be negative impact if too many are kicked out. It’s just a falsehood driven by racism.

          There is nothing wrong with doing things the right way. It’s just that the right and wrong ways are pretty arbitrary. It’s also pretty easy to say that when it’s not you who Comes from a country torn apart by civil war.

  5. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/05/2017 - 01:31 pm.

    Amen Hugh!!!

    Can’t have open borders and a welfare state. No one promised you food stamps, free housing, free transportation, free healthcare and 50 other free programs in 1890.. They offered an opportunity for those who would take it…. A bit different than 2017 I would say.. Probably need different set of rules.

    • Submitted by Jim Young on 06/05/2017 - 03:34 pm.

      How quickly we forget …

      the things we don’t want to remember because they don’t support our current political outlook.

      The Homestead Act of 1862 offered “Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land.” ( You had to meet certain requirements (build a dwelling, live there, grow crops etc.) but it was yours for almost nothing. Note that you didn’t have to be a citizen to claim the free land.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/06/2017 - 09:29 am.


      I’m sure if your ancestors were offered SNAP benefits and Section 8 housing or any of those “50 free benefits” they would have turned down the offer right away.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/06/2017 - 07:09 am.

    Simple question

    How does it work if a police officer in Minneapolis asks for a driver’s license after a legal stop and a person doesn’t have one due to illegal status? Can that officer report to ICE? Police should not stop people randomly on the street to check papers but in this case they have all the right to do it. And by the way, why should those who break the law feel anywhere like in a sanctuary? And yes, I remember my history: we came here from the Soviet Union legally…

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/06/2017 - 08:29 am.

      That’s not what’s happening

      According to this story, officers are asking for a person’s “documents”, not their driver’s license.

      That’s an entirely different thing.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/07/2017 - 07:10 am.

        What will happen

        Yes, I understand, but will a police officer in my example be praised or punished?

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/07/2017 - 10:51 am.

          Sorry . . . . .

          But that’s not what this article is about.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/07/2017 - 10:54 am.

          And further . . . .

          to the comment I just wrote (not yet posted):

          If an officer asks a driver for a license and the driver can’t produce one, all the officer can cite the person for is driving without a license. The officer would have no way of knowing WHY the person doesn’t have one, hence your theoretical scenario about turning the person over to ICE is irrelevant.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/08/2017 - 07:17 am.

            Yes and no

            It’s not about that specifically and yet it is generally because it talks about “feeling of a sanctuary.” If someone is driving without a license, the citation is for driving without a license… but it must be issued to the person who drives without a license so that person, sooner or later, must prove his or her identity… If it’s cannot be done, then what?

            • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 06/08/2017 - 09:35 am.

              Not what you asked

              You asked “will a police officer in my example be praised or punished?”. And that is an irrelevant question because the police officer in your example would have no idea of the reason for the lack of a license and would therefore have no (legal) reason to turn the person over to ICE.

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