Eating While Brown

Did you know that in Frederick County, Maryland until last week it was practically a crime to eat in public without lawful immigration papers?

Fortunately, last week a federal appeals court stopped this unjust police practice in a challenge by a courageous Latina woman named Roxana Orellana Santos who was able to take these police tactics to a federal court and can now fully tell her story.

In October 2008, Ms. Orellana Santos was a sitting in a public area outside her workplace and without any justification whatsoever, except for her appearance as a Latina woman, however that's defined by county law enforcement, two officers began to interrogate her and demand identification.

They concluded that Orellana Santos had an outstanding warrant for removal and that's where her odyssey began. Forty six days of detention followed her unjustified arrest. Forty-six days that she was unable to see her two-year old son.

Within days of her release attorneys from LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Casa de Maryland and the firm of Nixon Peabody filed a civil right lawsuit on her behalf against the County, the officers and especially, Frederick County Sheriff Charles Jenkins.

With Jenkins' entry in this saga the story is even more fascinating because Jenkins is, apparently, the Sheriff Joe Arpiao of the East. Sheriff Jenkins was elected in 2007 on an anti-immigrant platform and then immediately took advantage of training opportunities offered in the Bush administration in the 287-g program. The purpose of 287-g cooperation agreements is simple: how to train local law enforcement in the search for undocumented criminals?

Obviously, this simple proposition was manipulated to justify racial profiling, a world where being brown is a crime and where the goal is to make life impossible for Latino immigrant communities. And in this world, Sheriff Jenkins proudly proclaims his exploits and his hard stance against immigrants. Indeed, at the time of the Orellana Santos lawsuit, Jenkins called a press conference to announce his 500th arrest of an undocumented immigrant.

The litigation had its obstacles. The initial trial court ruled against Orellana Santos and justified the county officials. The fact that she was subject to a removal order justified, in the court's eyes, whatever means the Sheriff's Department undertook to apprehend her and could never raise constitutional concerns. Her attorneys appealed and renewed their application for a suspension of deportation proceedings with the Department of Homeland Security.

Soon the case gathered media attention once the media began comparing Orellana Santos' "eating while brown" story with the unjust racial profiling episodes of law enforcement throughout the country.

Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state and local police cannot constitutionally arrest anyone based solely on the mere suspicion of violating federal immigration laws. Moreover, the fact that Homeland Security orders the deportation of anyone does not sanitize an unconstitutional arrest since local law enforcement have no business enforcing federal immigration laws.

In short, the appeals court followed the law as set forth by the Supreme Court in the Arizona v. Holder -- in that sense, the court was merely following precedent. While the court did dismiss the claims against all law enforcement agents, including Jenkins, because the law was unsettled in 2008, it did keep Frederick County on the hook for potential liability -- especially because of Jenkins' policies.

So what does Frederick County and Jenkins supports do in response? They dig in their heels and proclaim that they could both make the county Maryland's "most unfriendly to illegal aliens," in the words of county commission president Blaine Young while simultaneously profess that the county is not "anti-minority."

President Young was holding court on August 8th at a commission meeting where, get this, the Frederick County Commissioners passed a resolution supporting their sheriff's department in the wake of the Orellana Santos decision. Obviously, these commissioners don't get it: stereotyping Latinos solely based on their appearance with nothing more, no suspicion of criminality let alone actual crime, is unconstitutional -- plain and simple.

Now Ms. Orellana Santos will have her day in court, and we hope another stay of deportation. "It was obvious that Frederick County law enforcement used the pretext of detaining Ms. Orellana Santos to request her identification at the same time that their boss was proclaiming his success in arresting immigrants. This is the essence of a racial profiling case," noted José Pérez, Deputy General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF and one of the attorneys for Orellana Santos.

And with the example of this humble dissident, Ms. Orellana Santos has improved the landscape of legal protections for thousands of Latinos.