Twin Cities attorneys are waging a down-to-the-wire effort to prevent the deportation of a Mexican man whose run-in with a Metro Transit officer drew national attention.
A volunteer attorney filed a request Thursday to reopen the man's removal case, arguing he was not aware he might have options to stay when he signed off his right to a hearing before an immigration judge. The man, Ariel Vences-Lopez, was arrested by Metro Transit police May 14 on suspicion of fare evasion, obstructing the legal process and providing a false name. He was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities. A video of a transit officer asking about his immigration status on the light rail's Blue Line went viral.
Attorneys are also weighing a formal complaint about the handling of the case by the officer, who has since resigned.
Immigrant advocates have rallied around Vences-Lopez's case, which they say illustrates the uncertainty those living in the state illegally face in interacting with authorities. Attorneys sought out the man in immigration detention over the holiday weekend and offered to represent him pro bono.
"There are a lot of people in the community who want to support him because of how unfair they feel his arrest was," said Danielle Robinson Briand, his attorney.
An ICE spokesman said the agency could not comment on the requests to block Vences-Lopez's deportation and reopen his case before reviewing the documents. The agency had previously said the man's deportation was imminent after a judge signed a final order of removal later in May.
Robinson Briand said she visited Vences-Lopez, 23, in the Sherburne County jail on Memorial Day. He entered the United States illegally in 2013, was working for a roofing company and did not have any family in the area. He told her he believed trying to resist his deportation would be futile. She persuaded him to give it a try, telling him for the first time about the national media attention and the more than a million views the light rail video had garnered.
"The poor kid really had no idea what his rights were," she said. She said her client had a previous citation for driving without a license.
Immigrants read and initial each paragraph of a lengthy explanation in their native language that they could bypass possible immigration relief by signing away their right to a hearing.
Robinson Briand said she will argue that her client might be eligible for a U visa, for victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement. She says Vences-Lopez told her he was robbed at knifepoint in Minneapolis earlier in May, an incident he never reported to police for fear he might get in immigration trouble. Without a bank account, he was carrying about $2,000, and he said the robbery left him broke and unable to buy a light-rail ticket. Robinson Briand's office is working on filing a late police report.
Attorney Bruce Nestor is teaming up with Robinson Briand to explore filing a complaint with the Minneapolis Human Rights Commission and possibly a lawsuit over the circumstances of the man's arrest. Nestor notes Metro Transit's policy bars officers from inquiring about passengers' immigration status. Robinson Briand says Vences-Lopez showed her three marks where he was shot with a Taser by the officer, Andy Lamers — a use of force Nestor says might have been excessive after a fare check. The official report of the incident says Vences-Lopez bladed his body toward the officer, tried to pull away when the officer grabbed his arms and "refused verbal and physical efforts to go to the ground."
"I believe the man's rights were violated and he was mistreated," Nestor said.
Advocates have started an effort to raise money in case Vences-Lopez becomes eligible to post bond.
Officer wasn't fired
Meanwhile, a labor union representing police officers released a statement saying Lamers was not fired by Metro Transit but resigned on his own, "in part to try to spare Metro Transit from further scrutiny." The agency said it launched an internal investigation into the incident.
"He regrets the attention this issue has brought to his fellow officers at Metro Transit," said Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services in the statement, which described Lamers as "an experienced, dedicated police officer with an exemplary record of service." Lamers declined to comment.
A group called Communities United Against Police Brutality plans to attend the June 12 New Hope City Council meeting to demand that Lamers be fired.
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