WASHINGTON -- An undocumented Florida woman who helped her sister report domestic violence now faces an order of deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even though her lawyers say she never should have been detected by ICE agents in the first place.
The woman, Rita Cote, 25, is married to a U.S. citizen and has four children, all of them citizens. She has no criminal record. But when police arrived to respond to the domestic-violence call on Feb. 16, 2009, law enforcement instead took Cote into custody, detained her for a week and handed her over to ICE.
Cote now faces deportation at any time to her native Honduras, which she fled as a child in 1998 to escape Hurricane Mitch and its aftermath. If deported, she could be separated from her husband and children for up to a decade.
While law-enforcement officials seek to work closely with their communities to prevent or solve crimes, immigrant-rights advocates say cases like Cote's hurt that cause. The threat of deportation can have a chilling effect on the willingness of undocumented immigrants to turn to the police, they argue, even in similar cases of violent crime, leaving areas heavily populated by illegal immigrants more dangerous and lawless.
ICE officials say their enforcement priorities first target illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes, but in practice, the agency more often rounds up those whose only crime is being in the country without documentation. The Obama administration has set a record for deportations of immigrants without a criminal record -- expelling more such people than those with a criminal record, although deportation of criminals has also increased.
In a pair of lawsuits filed on Jan. 25, the American Civil Liberties Union claims that the chain of events leading up to Cote's removal order began with racial profiling. The lawsuits accuse the Tavares Police Department, which responded to her sister's 911 call, and Lake County, which held Cote in a detention center for a week, of overstepping their bounds by asking her for identification and taking her into detention.
John Makholm, an attorney representing the City of Tavares, told HuffPost the city rejects the ACLU's characterization and insists that the responding officers followed standard procedure. Officials in the county sheriff's office declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit facing them because it had not yet been served.
ICE officials had previously issued Cote a removal order while she was still a minor, but ACLU and immigration lawyers said she never received notification of the order.
In 2009, Cote appeared on ICE's radar once again following the 911 call on behalf of her sister, who does not speak English. She was still present when police responded to the call. At that point, ACLU lawyers say the responding police officers swayed from normal protocol and required everyone at the scene to present identification. According to ACLU lawyer Glenn Katon, the police took Cote to jail after demanding that she show her passport rather than another photo I.D., which had her married name.
The ACLU lawsuit contends that asking Cote for an I.D. -- and taking it to the level of demanding a passport -- was a matter of racial profiling by the police and claims police and the county had no authority to detain her. "I find that hard to believe that if this was a white family and someone got into a fight at a party, they'd ask everyone for I.D.," Katon told HuffPost.
Makholm, the lawyer for the city, said the police scanned Cote's identification under normal procedure and found a warrant in the federal database filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They then confirmed the warrant with ICE before an ICE agent called back and asked police to detain Cote, he said.
"In terms of this case, the officers acted appropriately, and she was not targeted because of any ethnicity," Makholm told HuffPost. "She was the person who was wanted on the warrant, and the arrest was made pursuant to U.S. customs. Our view is that if there is a problem, the problem is with U.S. customs laws, and not with the City of Tavares Police Department."
U.S. immigration law leaves little room to maneuver for undocumented immigrants who, like Cote, entered as children. Even though she is married to a U.S. citizen, Cote cannot apply for citizenship under normal marriage visa laws because she entered the country illegally. Instead, she would need to return to her native country and wait 10 years before returning, unless immigration officials waived that waiting period. The Dream Act, a bill that would have offered paths to legal status for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, failed to pass the Senate in December.
Cote's second order of removal was issued after the ACLU filed its lawsuits against the city and county. Her immigration lawyer, John Barry, said Cote would likely be granted a reprieve from deportation because of the circumstances of her case. (High-profile cases are more likely to dropped by immigration officials, lawyers say.) Several Florida newspapers, along with Latino news outlets, followed the story of her arrest and the ACLU lawsuits.
"You need media attention, plus something else," Barry told HuffPost. "A health problem or some other kind of compelling family circumstances ends up being helpful."
In addition to the ACLU's presence, Cote's case attracts attention because she is married to a combat veteran, Barry said. He said ICE agents had indicated that Cote will not be deported, but may instead be granted parole status.
Other immigrants in similar situations, though, may not be as lucky, particularly as enforcement programs such as Secure Communities and 287(g) expand ICE's reach.
"They're screwed over, and it's a crime," Barry said. "What this case does is show that the only thing unique about Rita's case is that she happens to be married to a retired U.S. service member. You could think of her being married to any other person who didn't have a combat record, and there's not much that can be done for those people."