It was deer season 2012, and 11 Twin Cities men had gone hunting in the Wildlife Management Area south of Lake Mille Lacs.

Within hours, the expedition was over and seven of them were in the Mille Lacs County jail, accused of being illegal residents.

Late last month, eight of the hunters filed a federal lawsuit, claiming they were the victims of racial profiling.

"We feel like this is racist," says Mayolo Garcia, 36, of Crystal, one of the hunters and a U.S. citizen. Three other hunters questioned by two conservation officers for the state Department of Natural Resources were legal residents.

Four hunters are working to gain legal status while two others have been deported or forced to leave the country.

The men, who say they have lived in Minnesota for many years, said they had been hunting for about five hours on Nov. 10, 2012, when they returned from the woods to make breakfast in the parking lot. Two conservation officers showed up and asked to see their hunting licenses. They also asked to see another form of identification.

One man produced a card issued by the Mexican government. The officers called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Two agents interviewed the 11 men by phone and determined seven should be detained as suspected illegal residents.

In interviews this week, the men said that officers treated them differently than they did other hunters in the parking lot that morning. They said they saw the officers ask three white hunters and two Asian hunters to show their hunting licenses, but not photo IDs.

When the Hispanic hunters asked a DNR officer about the difference, he allegedly said, "None of your business."

Official action varies

Questioning about an individual's immigration status by law enforcement varies around the state, with some departments being more aggressive than others. Minneapolis and St. Paul police policies prohibit officers from questioning people about their status in routine stops and encounters.

While he said he cannot comment on the lawsuit, Ken Soring, the DNR's chief conservation officer, said officers receive training for dealing with immigration status, although the DNR has no written policy.

DNR officers sometimes ask for photo IDs in addition to hunting licenses and sometimes they don't, based on their observations and "the totality of information," he said. "There is not a black and white standard."

Sometimes hunters may be using someone else's hunting license, Soring said, so officers may ask for a picture ID as well. He said the DNR had "directives against discrimination and harassment" and supports unbiased policing.

In a report on the 2012 incident, DNR officer Brent Speldrich wrote that Angel Garcia Muñoz produced a nonresident deer license and an ID card issued by Mexico. Following Homeland Security recommendations, he called ICE.

ICE agents determined that seven were illegal residents and had them taken to jail.

While all the men had hunting licenses, Speldrich's report shows that eight hunters were ticketed, seven for having filled out a "false license application."

Bruce Nestor, their attorney, said that despite living in Minnesota, because they are nonresidents, they should have been given nonresident hunting licenses. According to a sheriff's report, the DNR was "not going to pursue local hunting violations on these parties."

Attorneys: DNR went too far

Attorneys for the eight hunters believe conservation officers went too far.

Nestor and Abigail Wahl said to even ask for the ID cards was discriminatory, exacerbated by forcing the hunters to undergo individual questioning by ICE. "It's unconstitutional to detain people on the basis of their nationality or the color of their skin," Wahl said.

A spokesman for ICE said the agency could not comment because of the pending litigation.

Mark Cangemi, retired special agent in charge of ICE in the Twin Cities, said if he were arguing the case for the government, he would point out that if one person presented a Mexican government identification card, which is "generally issued to people who don't have legal status in the United States," it might lead conservation officers to have "heightened suspicion."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224