Working for the clampdown

Are Minneapolis cops trying to illegally bust immigrants?

"Let me tell you a terrible thing that is going on in the Twin Cities," began a post to the Minneapolis Issues e-forum earlier this week. "Officers (don't know exactly from what institution) had been waiting for the people outside 'El Burrito' and the Kmart of Lake Street (so the target of this operation was Latino Community). [The] officers were ramdomly asking for documents ... and the people who weren't able to [prove] it were caught and put into jail."

There's plenty of reason to be skeptical of such internet speculation, but it was more than possible that such a scenario might be true.

"It's something that I'm hearing is more and more common with local law enforcement," confirms one member of the MPD who asked not to be named. "It's not just Minneapolis police, though certainly there are some who are very interested in messing with immigrant communities."

The problem with the practice is that it's illegal. In June 2003, the Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance that forbade city employees--most notably cops--from inquiring about an immigrant's legal status. (St. Paul soon followed suit.) The idea stemmed more from common sense that any political correctness: There was a fear that having local officers doing immigration checks would would further complicate routine police work.

(Governor Tim Pawlenty, in a bit of immigrant-baiting that has become part of his re-election MO, recently has repeatedly called for each city to repeal its policy.)

More importantly, there was a looming legal concern as to whether local police departments had the jurisdiction to make such inquiries, and whether institutions like the MPD would in effect be under the control of federal agencies.

So when each twin city took measures against such scenarios, most in local law enforcement applauded. "The Police Department is not the INS, and we will not do their work for them," MPD Chief Bill McManus said shortly after he took office two years ago.

"But there's some old-school officers who don't care about the ordinance," says the MPD source, saying that Latinos in particular seem to be targeted right now. "They've taken it upon themselves to mess with and harass immigrant communities."

Some internal e-mails from the MPD would seem to bear this out. One May 2004 missive, sent from Matthew Segulia to "All MPD" under the subject heading "Illegal Immigrants," recounts a traffic stop by Segulia where the driver "admitted to me that he was from Mexico and an illegal immigrant." Segulia then goes on to boast that he "contacted the INS via telephone" and that a rep from the bureau assured Segulia that officers should contact immigration services when they come across such a situation.

Four days later, First Precinct Inspector Rob Allen responded by reminding all officers of the city's ordinance. Allen then goes on to quote the MPD's own policy manual, which says that the U.S. Department of Justice is "the sole authority in immigration matters. This means that state and local law enforcement agencies have no authority with respect to immigration violations."

All of which seems clear enough, but there's reason to believe the letter and the spirit of the law are being violated. The officer recalls anecdotes of immigration agents identifying themselves as police officers and going into people's homes. Conversely, local cops have been known to hold a suspected illegal until someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrives on the scene. "They're always saying, 'Let me see your greencard,'" the MPD officer says.

The end result, according to the MPD source, is that you have a band of rogue cops who are most certainly operating outside of the law, and you have an innocent segment of the population intimidated and running scared.

"It's a terrifying thing for these families, who have done nothing wrong," the cop concludes. "Most people will not do anything about it. They won't refuse, they won't complain and they won't tell anyone else about it. The fear factor is too high."