ACLU files claim against ICE for harassing U.S. citizens en route to Amway convention

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a formal administrative complaint against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over an April incident during which dozens of Spanish speakers aboard a Denver charter bus were detained under suspicion of human smuggling. Turns out the riders were citizens on their way to an Amway convention in Omaha.

The complaint filed on behalf of Arquimides Bautista provides some background.

Early on April 2, Bautista was among a group of 35-40 people from the Denver area headed to Omaha for an Amway convention. They were planning to stay at the Omaha Hilton, but before their arrival, they stopped at a McDonald's. A deportation officer there overheard conversations among the conventioneers, and "based on her 19 years of experience as an Immigration Officer, the conversations in Spanish that she was hearing, and the dress of the individuals, she suspected the group to [be] a possible smuggling load," the document states.

Shortly thereafter, ICE officers boarded the bus and asked for identification -- and Bautista provided a valid State of Colorado photo ID card, the claim maintains. Nonetheless, he was soon arrested and taken to a Department of Homeland Security facility along with the other passengers. There, he was "ordered to empty his pockets," "ordered to put his hands against a wall," subjected to "a thorough pat-down body search," "confined to a cell" and "interrogated, fingerprinted and photographed before being released."

Look below to read the entire claim, as well as an ACLU release summarizing its court action:

ACLU of Colorado release:

ACLU files legal claim against ICE on behalf of United States citizens arrested in unwarranted immigration roundup

Denver -- In a formal administrative complaint filed with United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") today, ACLU lawyers blasted the agency for an unwarranted immigration roundup of dozens of Denver-area residents last April that included the illegal arrest and illegal search of United States citizens and legal immigrants who had done absolutely nothing wrong.

"This is a case of racial profiling and ethnic stereotyping at its very worst," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "An ICE agent targeted our clients for speaking Spanish in an Omaha fast-food restaurant. Speaking Spanish is not a crime, nor does it provide any basis for immigration officers to start demanding papers or otherwise launch any investigation."

The ACLU's complaint was filed on behalf of Arquimides Bautista and Rosalba Artimas, both United States citizens who live in the Denver area and are active vendors of Amway products. On the evening of April 1, along with several dozen other Spanish-speaking distributors, they boarded a chartered bus to travel to an Amway convention in Omaha, Nebraska. Arriving early the next morning, the bus stopped at a fast food restaurant so the passengers could eat breakfast. An ICE officer happened to be getting breakfast at the same time.

According to an ICE report, the Spanish-speaking ICE officer overheard the bus passengers speaking in Spanish and concluded that they had been traveling "for a while." The ICE officer suspected that the chartered bus was carrying what she called "a smuggling load." She called her superiors, who quickly sent reinforcements.

After the passengers returned to the bus, ICE officers swooped in. As ICE vehicles blocked the bus on either side, ICE officers, ordered the uniformed driver out of the bus and questioned him. The driver explained that Amway had hired his company, Global Transportation, Inc., to take the passengers from Denver to the Omaha Hilton for a convention. He also explained that he makes a similar trip to Amway gatherings every three months..

Ignoring the bus driver's explanation, three ICE officers boarded the bus and barked commands to the passengers. They announced they were from "immigration" and began aggressively demanding identification and questioning passengers about their immigration status. They ordered the bus driver as well as the passengers to turn off their cell phones or else they would be confiscated. After checking a handful of the passengers' IDs, including the IDs of the ACLU's two citizen clients, the ICE agents abruptly decided to commandeer the bus and take all of the passengers into custody. Without providing any explanation to the passengers, the ICE agents directed the bus driver to an ICE facility, where the passengers were ordered to get off in groups of five.

ICE agents forced all passengers to empty their pockets, put their hands up against a wall, and submit to thorough body searches. The passengers were then confined in cells to await further questioning and processing.

After ICE agents were satisfied that Mr. Bautista and Ms. Artimas were citizens, they were released, but not until Mr. Bautista was fingerprinted and forced to pose for a mug shot.

"The Fourth Amendment applies to ICE officers just as it applies to any other law enforcement agency," Silverstein said. "ICE officers cannot forcibly detain persons and demand their papers unless there is a reasonable suspicion of an immigration violation. Speaking Spanish and traveling a long way does not amount to reasonable suspicion."

"The ICE officers had no legal basis for boarding the bus and demanding papers," said Hans Mayer, an ACLU Cooperating Attorney who also represents Bautista and Artimas. "This is especially clear after they spoke with the bus driver and learned that their suspicion of a so-called 'smuggling load' was nothing but a lurid fantasy. ICE officers clearly had no legal grounds for detaining, questioning, or arresting our clients, let alone searching them or keeping them in holding cells."

The ACLU's complaint was filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, under which the United States Government can be sued for certain actions of its employees. In this case, the claims are false arrest, false imprisonment, and battery. If the administrative claim is not resolved within six months, the ACLU's clients can sue in federal court, where they can also pursue claims for violations of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

More from our News archive: "'Labia lift' strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy." Also check out "Road to nowhere: The men who are caught transporting illegal immigrants rarely pay the price," Melanie Asmar's current feature article.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts