Minnesota hunters will no longer risk questioning about their immigration status under a settlement between the Department of Natural Resources and a group of Hispanic outdoorsmen.

"We can go hunting and not worry about being arrested," Mayolo Garcia, a hunter involved in the lawsuit, said.

The federal suit filed in 2013 was dismissed last week, resulting in a settlement that will award the hunters $77,000 in damages and legal fees. In addition, the DNR agreed to draft a new policy that prohibits conservation officers from arresting individuals based on their immigration status. DNR officials say it will be adopted immediately after management review.

Garcia and 10 other Twin Cities men were deer hunting near Lake Mille Lacs in fall 2012. They were having breakfast in a parking lot when two conservation officers approached them and asked for their hunting licenses, plus another form of identification.

Suspecting the men were in the country illegally, officers contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and two agents interviewed the hunters by phone. On ICE's recommendations, the officers detained seven of them.

In 2013, Garcia and eight of the men filed suit claiming they had been racially profiled. Garcia, who is a U.S. citizen, said the DNR officers "treated them differently." They asked white and Asian hunters to show only their licenses, but made the Hispanic men show an alternative photo ID as well.

"It was profoundly insulting, especially since two of our clients were citizens," Bruce Nestor, their attorney, said.

The other hunters involved in the case included two legal residents and five who are working to gain legal status, Nestor said. The other two hunters questioned that morning were forced to leave the country. Garcia said they were deported to Mexico and he has lost contact with them.

DNR: Race not a factor

Ken Soring, director of the law enforcement division at the Minnesota DNR, said conservation officers generally ask everyone they see hunting or fishing to show their licenses and other forms of identification, if necessary. "It has nothing to do with race," he added.

According to Soring, the hunters did not present the proper papers that morning, and officers were just following ICE's orders when they brought them to jail.

But Nestor argued, "DNR officers don't have the training of immigration officers, so they shouldn't be allowed to enforce."

The draft of the new DNR policy says that conservation officers will not be allowed to detain immigrants or report them to ICE unless they have committed a criminal offense. Under the settlement, the agency also agreed it would not honor ICE detainers — which allow state and local authorities to hold suspects for up to 48 hours after local charges have been satisfied.

Nestor said that time can be longer because it doesn't count weekends or holidays. "If you get picked up on the wrong day, you could actually be in jail for as much as five days."

ACLU gets involved

Last May the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sent a letter to all the county sheriffs in the state, encouraging them to ignore ICE detainers. It noted that several courts in the country have begun to abandon the practice because "detainers represent a mere request, not a command."

"You don't have the right to hold somebody in jail just because someone requests it," Nestor added.

Following the letter, both Hennepin and Ramsey counties announced last June they would no longer honor immigration detainers. Charles Samuelson, the ACLU-MN executive director, released a statement saying their decision reflected good judgment.

"Getting involved in immigration enforcement undermines community trust in the police and makes everyone less safe," Samuelson said.

Soring said new guidelines won't change much because the incident with the Hispanic hunters was rare, and there haven't been any other cases of DNR discrimination raised in several years.

"I don't think it will have a huge impact."

Garcia said he will now be able to hunt without worrying about challenges to his legal status.

"I feel really good about this. I'm hopeful the DNR will start treating immigrants with more respect."

Tina Munnell is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.