Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series about a recent immigration forum hosted by the Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters. In Saturday's edition, local immigrants who have become citizens and are active members of the community will share their stories.
Most area residents think of Park Rapids as a welcoming community, but one audience member at last week's immigration forum shared his concerns about the treatment of area immigrants during the open-mic portion of the event.
Questions about police relations with minorities in the community and the fear immigrants have of Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) were expressed, along with the need for a police officer fluent in Spanish.
The presentation, "Bringing It Home: Immigration in Our Area," was sponsored by the Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters and featured guest speaker Martha Castanon, a legal assistant with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
More than 70 area residents packed the meeting room to listen and learn more about the issues facing immigrants today.
Park Rapids resident Michael Rak shared concerns about his wife, Sofia, who is Hispanic but has been a U.S. citizen for more than 10 years, being singled out by a Park Rapids Police officer.
"Less than two weeks ago, my lovely wife here was profiled by an officer who stopped her coming out of a Park Rapids gas station and told that her back light was out," he said. "It wasn't. There was nothing wrong with the lights in that vehicle. Then he told her that her license was invalid because she previously had a license in Texas. None of this is true. He decided to not give her a ticket."
Sheriff Cory Aukes, who was in the audience, said complaints of this nature should be reported to the appropriate department so they can be dealt with.
"You should hold those officers accountable if it happened the way you said," Aukes replied, stating the concern should be brought to the Chief of Police.
Aukes asked Rak if his wife made a complaint. Rak said she has not and also asked him not to do so "because then she felt like she was going to be stopped every week."
When another audience member had a question for the sheriff, the event moderator said "talk with the sheriff on your own."
In a phone interview, Park Rapids Police Chief Jeff Appel, who was unable to attend the forum, said he is not aware of the traffic stop Rak is referring to.
"No one has reached out to me at all," he said. "I would like to encourage him to call us. It's hard for me to address the issue if I don't have any information about it."
Fear of ICE
Rak said the fear of ICE is prevalent in Park Rapids, where there have been six arrests of immigrants without warrants that he knows of.
"There have been Park Rapids police officers bringing ICE personnel to apartment buildings, going into the building without a warrant and detaining those people, taking them into court, charging them between $6,000 and $8,000 and $1,000 more if they wanted a lawyer, and then letting these people go after being told they have to wait years before a court case comes up," he said.
"This is the norm, and this is happening in Park Rapids," said Rak. "When someone says they are afraid to come to this meeting, it's very true. Currently, if someone is stopped by the police and not able to provide information requested due to the language barrier they could be sent to Bemidji and end up in court under ICE which could lead to the loss of the right to work until their trial, which could be more than a year because of the backlog of cases. People are afraid to come to church. It's happening in Park Rapids and Pelican Rapids. It's happening all over. People are being targeted because they come here to work hard. I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I'm retired now, and I know the Hispanic culture. I know the tradition. These people are coming here to make a better life for themselves. To not be accepted for that and live in fear that any time ICE can come up to your door and take you away and charge you thousands of dollars even if you have permission to work here, to live in that fear is a terrible thing."
When asked if local law enforcement officers interpret immigration policy, Aukes said, "Local law enforcement technically has no authority to enforce any kind of federal law. You have to be a federal agent, so it is not even possible. When we stop someone for committing a crime, for example, if we can't identify them and if maybe they can't speak English, they have no ID, they can't identify themselves, they can't account for being there, the officers will call a federal agent out of Bemidji to look into the matter. That is the extent of what we do. If someone can help us identify the person that's all we're asking for."
In a phone interview, Appel said, "There are times that we assist ICE if they're working on something in our city. It's common courtesy for them to call us and there have been times when we've assisted them. I can't comment on the specific scenarios Rak is speaking to because I don't know what they are. I can't speculate on those claims. If he would come speak to me maybe I could figure out what he's talking about, but it's impossible to address the way it stands now. I can assure you that all of our officers follow a code that there's no one being racially profiled here. Cars are stopped every day in town. Once again, I would like to know the specifics of this traffic stop he's talking about so I could look into it as a complaint. Our policy on police allegations of misconduct is posted on our webpage. Complaint packets are available in our lobby and people can reach out to any of us at any time to make a complaint and we take all complaints seriously, but it's hard to comment on a complaint we never received."
In a statement made after the forum, Aukes reiterated, "As far as my stance goes, local law enforcement does not enforce federal law. We simply do not have the authority to do that. We do, however, rely on our federal partners to assist us in our job. It may be the FBI. It may be the DEA or the Border Patrol. If our officers are dealing with an individual that doesn't have any I.D. or doesn't speak English and provides us with no information whatsoever, we may contact a border patrol agent out of Bemidji for assistance. We then decide if the suspect is getting arrested and going to our jail or if we are simply releasing them. If the Border Patrol agent then has reason to take the person into their custody, that's not something we get involved with at all. That's something between the federal agency and that individual, whatever their status or circumstances are. That's not something we involve ourselves with. Once we're done with any potential state charges, that's where it ends, whether it's an illegal immigrant or a Hubbard County resident, it doesn't matter. We deal with it based on the violation and we handle it accordingly."
Need for bilingual officer
"We are hearing more and more incidents of law enforcement pulling people over for slight infractions and many times ICE is being called," Castoñen said. "A question for Hubbard County is do you have any bilingual officers that you could use instead of calling ICE in, the fed agency in Bemidji?"
Aukes responded "We do not."
"The police are calling ICE. ICE is coming in and they're taking that person up to their station, questioning them, sometimes not releasing them, holding them for hours, sometimes having to pay a large sum of money to post bail like $7,500," Castoñen said.
"Immigration court out of Minneapolis has such a backlog of cases that people are not getting their hearings until way into 2019. So immigration will do a background check and do a fingerprint and their profile comes up. In the meantime, if they're released they have to sit and wait months for immigration court.
"Sometimes the immigration judge will let them get an employment authorization card, but they only do that in certain circumstances," Castoñen said. "In the meantime, the person is waiting. They've got kids to feed, rent to pay, bills to pay, otherwise you'll be out on the street, no heat, no lights, nothing."
An audience member suggested hiring a police officer who is fluent in Spanish to work in this community.
Appel said, in the four months he has been in the position, he doesn't believe a bilingual officer has applied for a job posting.
"We're an active member of the Language Line so we have access to certified interpreters from any phone. That's not limited to Spanish. We can have interpreters available for any language. That can happen on a speaker phone on a scene. Communication shouldn't be an issue because we have that access."