Man threatened with deportation after cutting down tree without licence

'Absolutely no lawful basis for his detention,' Baltimore court hears

Rebecca Tan
Tuesday 26 November 2019 12:46 GMT
Man was referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a controversial US government body
Man was referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a controversial US government body (Getty)

An undocumented immigrant from Maryland is suing a state police agency whose officers turned him over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after writing him a ticket for improper tree removal.

Jose Ricardo Villalta Canales, 31, was helping a relative cut down a dead tree at his home in Rockville on 7 August when he was approached by police from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said attorneys at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Mr Villalta, who had no prior criminal record, did not have the appropriate licence to cut down the tree, a violation of state law punishable by a fine of up to $500 (£390).

The police officers allegedly took five minutes to fine Mr Villalta $320 (£248), according to the lawsuit filed Monday in US District Court in Greenbelt. But they detained him for more than two hours after making a routine check of a national database to see if he was the subject of any outstanding state, federal or local warrants.

The database showed ICE had filed an administrative warrant for deportation, also known as a detainer.

Maryland state agencies are only supposed to act on judicial, or criminal, warrants, the Department of Natural Resources said in a recent letter to state lawmakers who had enquired about Mr Villalta's case.

But in this case, the officer acted on the warrant, placing Mr Villalta in custody until federal agents arrived. After being place in federal custody, he has remained in ICE detention in Frederick County for more than three months.

His immigration attorney, Vincent Rivas-Flores of Konare Law, said there is a pending petition to reopen his immigration case in the Baltimore immigration court.

“There was absolutely no lawful basis for his detention. There was no warrant for his arrest and no evidence that he had made a criminal offence,” said Emily Gunston, deputy legal director of the lawyer's committee.

“This is not an ambiguous case,” said Azadeh Erfani, an associate counsel at the organisation. “His rights were very much violated.”

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

But the 27 August letter from acting superintendent Ernest Leatherbury Jr to delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo said the agency was revising its policies to make clear that officers should act only on judicial warrants, and would train officers on the revised policies “to ensure full compliance.”

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Born in El Salvador, Mr Villalta arrived in Montgomery County in 2006, at age 17, having crossed the border on his own, his attorneys said.

Prior to his arrest, he lived in Rockville and worked in roofing, helping to support his partner's children and several nieces and nephews.

At a news conference on Monday, Maria Villalta, 43, said her brother is a “family man” with many relatives in the Washington area. She said she recently visited him in detention and is worried by how depressed and withdrawn he seemed.

“We want him to come home, where he belongs,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Mr Villalta's arrest comes amid months of heated, sometimes ugly debate over immigration enforcement in the region and across the country, with the issue becoming a bitter dividing line between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump.

In July, Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, issued a sweeping executive order prohibiting all executive-branch departments in the county of 1 million, including local police, from assisting in federal immigration investigations.

The decision was criticised by the White House and the acting director of ICE, and sparked local backlash that boiled over in September with duelling protests outside county government headquarters in Rockville.

Last week, lawmakers in neighbouring Prince George's County unanimously approved a bill barring all county agencies from immigration enforcement, setting the stage for what advocates say will be an push for similar legislation at the state level. The Prince George's legislation came after county officers were found to have acted on administrative warrants they flagged in the federal database, similar to Mr Villalta's case.

Gabriel Acevero, a Democrat, said the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus plans to revive the campaign for the Trust Act – a sanctuary bill that failed in Annapolis in 2017 – in the legislative session that begins in January.

Mr Villalta's attorneys said they believe what happened to him is part of a broader pattern of behaviour at the state's parks department. Advocates and experts caution that such arrests can effectively dissuade immigrant communities from working with law enforcement on public safety issues and criminal investigations.

In New Orleans, the detention and potential deportation of an immigrant who flagged safety concerns has hampered an investigation into a construction site disaster that killed three people and injured dozens of others. In the Washington region, advocates say, it has discouraged victims of domestic abuse from pursuing legal recourse against their abusers.

“We are creating a situation where an entire community of people are afraid to have any sort of interaction with law enforcement,” Mr Gunston said. “This is just bad policing in addition to being unlawful.”

The Washington Post

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