JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Early one winter morning last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were scouting the last known address of a fugitive they had labeled Target #147 when they happened upon Isabel Karina Ruiz-Roque.
A turkey farmworker for over a decade, Ruiz-Roque had kept her head down and her record clean, never once encountering los ICEs, as she called them. Then two federal agents rapped on her car window and flashed a photo of the immigration fugitive they believed to be her York County neighbor. Ruiz-Roque, 34, said she did not know the woman, and they told her not to worry, that she was not their target.
Two weeks later, during an enforcement operation that prized big arrest numbers, the agents returned and demanded she let them into her Hanover apartment house to search for #147. When she refused, they arrested her instead, and drove her, handcuffed, to a Rite Aid parking lot to scan her fingerprints, she said.
There, after finding the record of an old apprehension at the border, they made a stunning proposition, according to a sworn statement she filed in immigration court: They would ignore their discovery and let her go if she paid them off.
They suggested $2,000 to $3,000, according to her statement. She told them she did not have that kind of money. And so they transported her to the York County Prison, the primary detention center for immigrants in Pennsylvania, to face deportation.
Unlike most immigration detainees, Ruiz-Roque was able, through her sister, to secure a lawyer to fight her removal. He would try to air her bribery allegation in court. But the secretive immigration justice system is not set up for public accountability.
An investigation by ProPublica and the Inquirer found numerous cases in which ICE agents and police officers allegedly engaged in racial profiling, conducted warrantless searches, detained people without probable cause, fabricated evidence, and, in this one extreme instance, solicited a bribe.
But in none of these cases have agents or officers been put on the stand to respond to the allegations.
The conduct of arresting officers is rarely scrutinized in the overwhelmed immigration courts, which focus squarely on whether arrested individuals should be removed from the United States. While deportation proceedings are civil, they afford immigrants fewer rights than criminal defendants to challenge their apprehensions.
Noncitizens have a considerable range of protections under the Constitution; if arrested for a crime like robbery or assault, they, like citizens, are protected against unlawful searches and seizures, and against self-incrimination.
Yet immigrants facing removal, unlike criminal suspects, do not have the right to a government-provided lawyer. And without a lawyer — two-thirds of immigration detainees didn’t have one last year — they are highly unlikely to contest the validity of their arrests. They are also 10 times less likely to win their cases. And if they get deported, any allegations of law enforcement abuses disappear along with them.
In a statement, ICE officials said their enforcement activities are conducted “with integrity and professionalism’’ and “in compliance with federal law and agency policy.’’
“ICE holds all of its personnel to the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct,’’ the officials said.
Over the last year, the aggressive immigration crackdown in Pennsylvania has heartened those who see undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers even if they have no criminal records. But advocates for immigrants say that many of the arrests themselves have been unlawful and would not hold up in a regular court of law.
“ICE has run amok,’’ said Craig Shagin, a Harrisburg lawyer. “And nobody is reining them in.”
At a time when every undocumented immigrant is a potential target and few are awarded lenience, the inequities in the immigration justice system are exacerbated.
Even if undocumented immigrants have lawyers, they face challenges unique to the immigration courts, where the backlog reached an all-time high of 684,583 cases by March 1. The courts operate with what their own spokeswoman calls “an outdated paper filing system,” and provide no public access to charging documents, evidence, or routine judicial decisions. Most hearings are open, but some immigration courts, like the one in York, sit inside prisons or detention centers, with courtrooms behind two layers of locked and guarded doors.
Unlike police officers in criminal court, ICE officers rarely appear in immigration court to explain or defend an arrest. Their first names are often omitted from ICE’s equivalent of an arrest form, and sometimes, lawyers say, their full names are blacked out. Occasionally, ICE arrest forms, which are supposed to provide the government’s evidence of “alienage,’’ are never produced at all.
Immigrants detained at York who want to fight their arrests on constitutional grounds face considerable disincentives. Immigration judges there generally will not consider bond requests until such challenges are decided, according to former Judge Walter A. Durling, who retired in December. In other words, if they want to assert that their rights were violated, they must do so from behind bars, which can take many months.
Arrests can be challenged, but the standard is much higher than in criminal court. Immigrants must demonstrate not only that ICE officers acted unconstitutionally but that their violations were egregious or represented a widespread pattern. When it comes to alleged misconduct in immigration cases initiated by police officers, the legal bar is even higher.
As immigration arrests escalated last year, the American Immigration Council reissued a “practice advisory” that encouraged immigration lawyers to make greater use of motions to suppress evidence obtained illegally. Federal immigration agents do not have “carte blanche” in making arrests, the pro-immigrant group said: “They must heed limits on their authority imposed by the Constitution, statutes and regulations.”
At the same time, Thomas Griffin, a Philadelphia lawyer who represented Ruiz-Roque, created a local network dubbed “The Suppressors” to encourage his fellow immigration attorneys to see themselves less as independent advocates and more as a collective force taking on the “detention/deportation machine.”
Durling, the former judge, does not share The Suppressors’ concerns about misconduct by federal agents in Pennsylvania. He said he handled about a dozen cases last year in which lawyers filed suppression motions.
“Not one case did I find to be constitutionally problematic,’’ he said.
After President Trump was elected, but before he took office, a 60-year-old Guatemalan dishwasher got a taste of what was in store for undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania.
In late November 2016, while riding his rusty bicycle to his job in Doylestown, the man found himself surrounded by six ICE officers, as his lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, described it. They showed him a photograph, saying they were searching for the fugitive pictured, who they believed had lived in his apartment unit. He did not know the man, he told them.
The federal agents put his bike in their car, drove him home, and took his keys from his backpack. When they could not locate their target, they arrested the dishwasher instead: a man with no criminal record who, his boss said, is so devoted to his job at a bakery that the first thing he did when released was to call in tears, to apologize for missing work for the first time in nine years.
The dishwasher was an early “collateral,” in ICE’s terms — picked up by immigration officers who, photo in hand, were looking for somebody else. His arrest, however, occurred under President Barack Obama, when immigration officials were still being encouraged to ignore people like him, to show leniency as a way to focus resources on those who threatened public safety and national security.
“Prosecutorial discretion,’’ as it was called, also served as a measure of accountability, to discourage and weed out improper arrests.
Catherine Schack, an ICE trial lawyer in Philadelphia, caught the dishwasher’s case. Alerted to potential improprieties in the arrest by Gian-Grasso, she ordered the immigration file of the original target. He turned out to be a 40-year-old Honduran, she said. So, as far as Schack was concerned, and the judge concurred: case closed. After Trump took office, however, prosecutorial discretion was sharply reduced by a mandate to enforce the law against all “classes or categories of removal aliens” and make “extremely limited exceptions.’’
Partly in reaction to having lost discretion, Schack retired.
In 2017, immigration arrests in Pennsylvania soared, pumping into the system immigrants without criminal records and so-called collaterals arrested while agents looked for other targets.
Without much prosecutorial discretion, the decision-making burden shifted to immigration judges, whose caseloads swelled, with 11,643 pending cases in Pennsylvania at the end of February. That represented a 62 percent increase since fiscal 2016, with only one new judge added to the bench.
“In the criminal system, the court would put the kibosh on some of these bad arrests right away,’’ Shagin, the Harrisburg lawyer, said. “But immigration judges, at least in this area, don’t want to get into the validity of these issues.’’
Reporters discovered a few questionable Pennsylvania cases that were quietly closed only after they were transferred out of state. Such turnabouts are not tracked, so it is impossible to know how often they occur or whether a Pennsylvania judge would have ultimately closed them, too.
Last May, a Mexican American family returning to Indiana from a master’s degree graduation ceremony in Vermont had their celebration cut short by a Pennsylvania trooper who pulled over their van near Erie. No citation was issued, but the trooper demanded identification from everybody — all citizens except for one passenger, who was on a path to legalization through his marriage to the graduate.
The man, a small-business owner and scout leader in Indianapolis, was turned over to ICE agents, imprisoned in York, and placed in deportation proceedings. Government lawyers refused to drop the removal case despite the man’s pending legalization. But after the man was released from detention and his case was transferred to Chicago, Immigration Judge Virginia Perez-Guzman quietly closed it herself without even a hearing on the matter.
Something similar happened in the case of two Hispanic immigrants who work for a New Jersey farm, which dispatched them to South Carolina to work on a ranch project last summer. On I-81 near Shippensburg, a coiled irrigation hose bounced off their truck’s trailer. The driver, an American citizen, stopped and the workers scrambled to collect the coil.
Just at that moment, a state trooper drove by.
“He saw these two Hispanics running down the highway, and I guess he took note,’’ said one of the men, Raúl, whose lawyer asked that his last name be withheld out of fear of retaliation by ICE.
Shortly thereafter, Trooper Luke C. Macke pulled over the truck, raised concerns about the trailer’s farm license plate, and, after concluding his traffic investigation and returning the driver’s documents, turned his attention to the passengers. The trooper grilled them about their immigration status, called ICE, and detained the men for 90 minutes until deportation officers arrived.
None of this ever appeared in an official account because no official account ever materialized. Even though Raúl’s lawyer, Ricky Palladino, said he was going to challenge the arrest in a motion to suppress, Raúl got lucky and had a visiting judge preside by video over his preliminary hearing in York. He got released on bond, and his case was transferred to Newark, where Immigration Judge David Cheng dismissed it, saying ICE had failed over four months to present any evidence at all.
Palladino was pleased for Raúl. But he said he wished he had had a chance to take the case to a higher court and expose “the glaring Fourth Amendment violations.”
“This kind of behavior just keeps getting swept under the rug,’’ Palladino said.
The case of 10 Alcoholics Anonymous members apprehended in Pennsylvania last year illustrates the difficulties of challenging an immigration arrest on constitutional grounds.
As reported by ProPublica and the Inquirer, the men were traveling to New York from an AA gathering in Georgia last April when Macke, the state trooper, pulled over their van for speeding, grilled the driver and passengers about their immigration status, and detained them for over an hour until ICE arrived. The speeding driver, a legal immigrant, was ticketed and released. Everybody else was undocumented, and ended up imprisoned in York, facing deportation.
Rosina Stambaugh, a lawyer who represented six of the men, decided to challenge the arrests as unconstitutional. She argued that the trooper had no legal authority to enforce immigration law, improperly prolonged a traffic stop, and detained the men without warrants.
But while she prepared her motion to suppress and the government prepared its response, the men would have to stay locked up, decided Durling, the immigration judge.
That was his standard approach because it sped up the disposition of cases, he said, in written responses to reporters’ questions. Indeed, once released into “non-detained” immigration court, cases can slow to a crawl. Those on the York prison immigration docket have been pending, on average, 49 days, compared with 509 days in Philadelphia immigration court.
Yet legal experts say judges cannot restrict access to bond for detainees who want to contest their arrests; that would violate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which says that the government cannot condition the exercise of one right (in this case, applying for bond) on the forfeiture of another (objecting to the admission of illegally obtained evidence), according to Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor.
In July, after the AA members had been imprisoned for three months, Durling rejected their motion to suppress evidence. He found no improprieties. But even if he had determined that the state trooper committed serious constitutional violations, it would not have mattered, he wrote.
“This court has no authority to conduct an inquiry into the State Trooper’s actions,” he ruled, citing precedents.
The AA members appealed the ruling to the Board of Immigration Appeals, having secured the high-powered help of pro bono lawyers from two corporate firms. Attorneys from Pepper Hamilton argued that Durling should have held an evidentiary hearing, requiring the trooper and the ICE agents to testify. A discovery process, they said, would have allowed them to “present potential evidence of widespread violations by state troopers and perhaps local law enforcement.’’
But in late February, the immigration appeals board ruled against the two men that the Pepper Hamilton lawyers represented. In early March, the lawyers took the matter to a higher court, and asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the men’s removal until the case was decided.
In the short time between the immigration appeals decision and the federal court filing, one of the men, Erick Yok-Us, was deported.
The other, a 28-year-old named Luis, is clinging to his fight to remain in America. A baker who had lived in New York City since he was a teenager, he said that he came close to giving up during his incarceration. "There was a moment when I despaired so much, when the despair really gripped me,” said Luis, whose last name is being withheld out of his lawyer's concern that some day ICE might re-arrest him.
During his six months in immigration detention, he lost his job, his apartment, and all his possessions. Now, he is living in Reading with the man who bailed him out — a virtual stranger, the relative of an immigrant he met inside York — and doing little but awaiting his fate.
It is the rare immigration arrest that gets any public notice, and when this happens, officials sometimes struggle to provide consistent explanations.
Such was the case when Pennsylvania Trooper Lisa Riccardo stopped a 1999 Chevy pickup carrying four Hispanic men for an expired tag in December. When the driver did not have a valid license, she demanded identification from him and his passengers, discovered the men were undocumented, called ICE, and detained them roadside until federal agents arrived, he later recounted. Soon, all were in jail, facing deportation.
As it turned out, however, the driver, Osman Aroche-Enriquez, a 27-year-old stonemason, was one of the “Dreamers” whose parents brought him to the United States illegally as a child. For five years, he had been protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. At the time of the traffic stop, however, because of a government mix-up involving the U.S. Postal Service, his status was temporarily invalid.
With national attention focused on DACA and the Trump administration’s plan to terminate it, immigrant advocates rallied around the jailed young man, who has a fiancée (a legal immigrant) and an infant son.
Church World Services in Lancaster found a top immigration lawyer to represent him for free; the offices of both Pennsylvania senators called ICE on his behalf; Vox published his story, and it spread on social media.
Within 24 hours, ICE released Aroche-Enriquez and then closed his deportation case in what officials called “an exercise of discretion.” All but overlooked in the excitement, however, were the three passengers in the truck, who remained imprisoned and facing removal. One was Jonatan Aroche-Enriquez, Osman’s older brother, who was a year too old to qualify for DACA.
Meanwhile, the state police and ICE provided conflicting accounts of how a traffic stop for an expired license plate landed four people in immigration detention.
ICE said immigration officers responded to the scene because the trooper had arrested the men on “local charges,” making them criminal suspects and thus targets under the new immigration rules. The state police, however, said there were no local charges.
The state police, on the other hand, said the trooper detained the men after finding “extradition detainers” — equivalent to arrest warrants — for all four of them in a law enforcement database. But ICE said neither of the Aroche-Enriquez brothers had a criminal record or was wanted for a crime, meaning no such detainers existed for them.
An attorney for Jonatan Aroche-Enriquez said he will raise these contradictions in his constitutional challenge to the arrest, though the immigration justice system is unlikely to hold anyone accountable for them.
Isabel Karina Ruiz-Roque spent 63 days behind bars. ICE had refused her bond, but an immigration judge later granted it.
When she was released from York, she returned to the turkey farm where she had worked for a decade, only to discover it would not take her back. For the next nine months, she helped take care of her nieces and nephews and prayed for a positive resolution to her case.
Griffin, her lawyer, filed a motion to suppress evidence and terminate proceedings. Even without the bribery allegations, he felt she had a strong case. He argued that ICE officers initially approached her “without probable cause or articulable suspicion regarding her immigration status” and coerced her to offer damning information about herself and to submit to fingerprinting.
ICE did not respond to Griffin’s motion or in any way address the allegations of unconstitutional and criminal behavior on the part of its agents. Exasperated, he went to court in the late fall and pleaded with an immigration judge in Philadelphia to terminate the case rather than grant the government more time.
The judge, Rosalind Malloy, expressed her own frustration, sweeping her hand over the “stacks of cases waiting for decisions.’’
“Your Honor, I understand the government is full of cases,’’ Griffin said, “but I don’t think our clients should suffer because the government is behind. These are under-resourced people who don’t speak English …”
The judge interjected: “And the courts are under-resourced!’’
Griffin continued: “Your Honor, it’s ICE that is creating the problem by arresting people in ways they’re not supposed to, so they’re backing up the court.’’
Malloy declined to terminate the case and gave the government another couple of months. In January, a week before ICE’s response was due, however, the government folded. It filed a motion to dismiss the removal case against Ruiz-Roque, and the judge granted the dismissal. As a result, while this was a victory of sorts for Ruiz-Roque, the ICE officers never had to answer to her charges in court.
But last week, ICE officials told ProPublica and the Inquirer that they could not comment on Ruiz-Roque’s bribery allegations “due to an ongoing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation.”
That was news to Ruiz-Roque and her lawyer. Did it mean that there might in fact be consequences for the agents who, according to the allegations, crossed a very serious line? For Griffin, it was hard to be hopeful. And for Ruiz-Roque, who is still unemployed and terrified she will be picked up again, the whole situation is baffling.
As of now, 14 months after her arrest and three months since her case was closed, she has yet to be contacted by any investigators.
A grant from the Lenfest Institute provided data and visual support for this article.