Immigration agents arrested Miguel Aguilar shortly after he and four other men left a New Brighton mobile home park on their way to work laying carpet last spring. Two weeks earlier, an anonymous tipster had called immigration authorities with Aguilar’s name and address.
A group of residents at Oak Grove Mobile Home Park say that tip came from a park manager and kicked off a string of arrests and deportations last year. Amid an intense national debate on immigration, the allegations have reverberated well beyond the park, triggering a state human rights investigation and reaction from top New Brighton officials who now face a possible defamation lawsuit.
An attorney for Oak Grove Park Properties, which has managed the park for more than 20 years, said a three-month investigation did not find any evidence that the on-site manager discriminated against residents. A lawyer for the manager says city officials have defamed her by repeating false allegations against her.
At a vigil at a nearby church Friday, residents said they feel newly empowered.
“We just want to be part of the community without fear,” said Luz Nataly Barron, Aguilar’s sister.
Dave Anderson with the advocacy group All Parks Alliance for Change, who is not involved in the case, says the nonprofit has never handled such claims, but he said mobile home park tenants often worry that managers could wield immigration status as leverage to suppress complaints.
Aguilar’s wife, Maria Salasar, says she can’t think of anybody other than Oak Grove’s on-site manager, Vicki Florio, who would have reported her husband to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
She says in the year before the arrest, Florio had complained about trash in the couple’s yard. Once, Salasar says, the couple got into an argument with Florio and she said she would call police or immigration authorities. Salasar says Florio was one of few people who knew that Aguilar, a father of four including three U.S. citizens, had returned to the United States after two previous deportations, a federal felony that made him a priority for ICE. That’s information the tipster shared, according to agency documents.
Aguilar and his two brothers, who were in the car the morning of his arrest, were deported.
“My husband wasn’t a criminal,” said Salasar, a stay-at-home mom until her husband’s deportation. “He was someone who was working to support his family.”
Oak Grove residents say Florio had complained about celebrations that she said bothered neighbors and over children running in the park. In a complaint to the Department of Human Rights alleging discrimination based on national origin, resident Sandra Gonzaga Perez says the manager made repeated threats about calling immigration authorities. The complaint says that after someone stuck nails in Florio’s tire, she told Perez’s young daughter, “If I find out one of you Mexicans did this, I am going to call Immigration.”
Another resident, Mireya Ortiz, said immigration officers stopped her four days after an argument with Florio, but she showed them her legal work permit and was not arrested. Residents say eight other tenants, former residents and a visiting relative were detained.
Because they did not provide names, ICE could not confirm the arrests. The agency, which last year ramped up enforcement, does not discuss its investigative methods, including tips through a hot line to report criminal activity. Shawn Neudauer, a St. Paul-based spokesman, says tips about people breaking immigration laws arrive daily. But he stressed the tip line is not for settling scores.
“Somebody using law enforcement to coerce people is potentially violating both civil and criminal federal laws,” he said.
Daniel Le, a Twin Cities attorney who last year helped two park residents challenge their evictions, said he is investigating residents’ allegations and that more human rights claims might be filed.
Park met with residents
Jonathan Septer, an attorney for Oak Grove Park Properties, said the company has never faced similar claims in 21 years of operating the park. He said Florio was placed on leave immediately after owners learned of the allegations. An investigation reviewed the manager’s communications and other documents; he repeatedly asked Le and another attorney helping residents for more details. But the inquiry came up empty.
“Oak Grove Park Properties has met with the residents to address their concerns, plans to continue the dialogue moving forward and as always, they are committed to full compliance with all fair housing laws, including the Minnesota Human Rights Act,” he said.
Philip Villaume, an attorney for Florio, said the owners cleared his client of wrongdoing, and she returned to work. He notes owners told city officials they have known Florio for two decades and had never had a discrimination complaint lodged against her.
“The allegations against her are blatantly false,” he said. “She was doing her job as a manager.”
After the ICE arrests, a group of women living in the park started organizing. They got support from a pastor at nearby Christ the King Lutheran Church, which hosted a fundraiser for families. The group delivered a petition calling for Florio’s ouster to the management’s offices and sought to enlist support from public officials.
A legal notice Villaume sent the city of New Brighton in November argues officials went too far and defamed Florio. It charges that Mayor Val Johnson along with the city manager and director of public safety visited Oak Grove Park Properties offices and presented his client as an “out-of-control racist treating Latino residents in a vile way” — one of several occasions Villaume says officials disparaged Florio.
Johnson says she simply tried to bring residents and the park’s management together to discuss concerns and has never placed any blame. Johnson attended Friday’s vigil at Christ the King, at which dozens of residents and supporters said they felt besieged by ICE and park management.
Matt Hanley with the League of Minnesota Cities, which handles claims against New Brighton, said the league investigated the allegations against officials and found them without merit. Villaume is considering a lawsuit. He said his client has cooperated with the Department of Human Rights investigation.
The department does not discuss pending claims or ongoing investigations. But Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said his office has seen an increase in discrimination claims based on national origin. He says he has worked to assure immigrants that his department does not share information with federal law enforcement and that those without immigration status are fully protected under anti-discrimination laws.
Lindsey predicts more national origin claims: “There’s palpable tension in asking whether we should be welcoming and what it means to be American.”