Trump's Immigration Reign of Terror is Turning Local Cops Into the Gestapo

Trump’s Immigration Reign of Terror is Turning Local Cops Into the Gestapo

For Cops Who Want to Help ICE Crack Down on Illegal Immigration, Pennsylvania Is a Free-for-All

By Dale Russakoff and Deborah Sontag
ProPublica

It was Easter morning in central Pennsylvania, and Luke C. Macke, a state trooper, was patrolling I-81 for speeders, swervers, texters, and seat-belt shirkers. Shortly before 8 a.m., he clocked a Ford Econoline van going 81 in a 65-mph speed zone near Carlisle.

Inside the van were 10 Latino men returning to New York from a two-day Alcoholics Anonymous conclave in Georgia. Many were dozing, and they startled awake when Macke, having asked the driver for his license and registration, swung open the van’s rear door and demanded everyone’s “papers” — passports, visas, work permits.

It was not the first time, and not the last, that Macke, 35, with nine years on the state police force, converted a routine traffic stop into an immigration arrest. In 2017, he turned over at least 19 undocumented immigrants to federal deportation officers after interrogating them about their legal status and detaining them without warrants, reporters for ProPublica, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Inquirer, found.

None had criminal records. Macke encountered some of them not in vehicles on the roads he patrols, but randomly — as they had a smoke before a night shift outside a shipping company warehouse or bought a soda inside his own state police barracks.

Related: He Was Betrayed by ICE, And Now He’s Marked for Death — But Wants His Story Told

And among those he stopped on highways, most who ended up in deportation proceedings were not drivers but passengers, like Edwin Cambar. When Cambar found himself handcuffed in the back of Macke’s cruiser on the verge of being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he told the trooper he had a daughter and asked, “Do you think you’d be happy if you were separated from your kids?”

“No,” he said Macke responded, “but it’s my job.”

Actually, it is not.

Macke is not trained or deputized as a federal immigration officer. No law enforcement official in Pennsylvania is, unlike those in states such as Georgia and Texas where many sheriffs’ offices have formal partnerships with the federal immigration agency.

Yet in the year after President Trump took office, state and local police officers across Pennsylvania swept carloads of Hispanic immigrants into ICE’s net. In the process, they helped the agency’s regional field office tally more “at-large” arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any of the 23 other field offices in the country. These are immigrants picked up in communities, not at local jails and prisons.

Using tactics that raise legal questions about racial profiling and unlawful arrest, local police and state troopers have stopped Hispanic drivers, questioned them and their passengers about their immigration status, and then detained them without warrants for up to four hours until ICE arrived, records and interviews show. In some instances, Latinos born in the United States were asked to prove their citizenship.

Related: Infuriating New Data Shows Just Who Trump’s Immigration Force is Really Arresting

While Macke’s fervor for collaborating with ICE appeared extreme among the cases examined by ProPublica and the Inquirer, his behavior illustrates how far an officer can go in a state with no rules, oversight, or tracking of police encounters with undocumented immigrants.

With the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, the extent to which local and state police should cooperate with ICE has become a simmering issue nationally.

Last year, five states — New York, California, Illinois, Oregon and Washington — limited how police can question immigrants about their legal status or hold them for ICE without a warrant. Separately, more than 400 counties restricted their engagement with ICE enforcement, according to a national survey. On the other hand, 59 local agencies in 17 states have partnerships with ICE to train and deputize their officers to enforce immigration laws.

Pennsylvania is in neither group, with no ICE partnership and no state-imposed restriction. The result is heightened uncertainty for immigrants about encounters with local and state authorities who might take it upon themselves to act unofficially as surrogates for the federal immigration agency. This is especially true in the center of the state, where anti-immigrant feelings run high.

“The whole central Pennsylvania area is like the opposite of a sanctuary city,” said Anser Ahmad, an immigration lawyer. “Cops are out there looking for people.”

Reporters closely examined two dozen cases in which state and local police served as conduits into deportation proceedings for scores of people last year. Most involved highway traffic stops, and often no citation was ever issued. Beyond the highways, municipal officers also reported and even delivered undocumented immigrants to ICE.

In Lemoyne, for instance, Officer Brandon Stolley of the West Shore Regional Police pulled over a restaurant cook for speeding, discovered he had no license, and called ICE so that the man, who had no criminal record, could be interrogated by phone about his immigration status. At a federal agent’s request, Stolley then handcuffed the cook, put him in his squad car, and drove 30 minutes beyond his patrol area to a McDonald’s parking lot to hand him over.

Gale Gallo, Lemoyne’s mayor and a member of the regional commission that oversees the police, expressed support for his actions: “In my view, he’d be within his authority to make sure that anyone driving illegally would not continue to drive in our borough,” she said. But policing experts say the officer should have done no more than ticket the cook and impound his car.

In North Versailles Township, police officers alerted ICE to the whereabouts of an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Wilfrido Perez after he was involved in a car crash in which no one was hurt. Perez, 49, had been in this country over two decades and was in the process of legalizing his status through his marriage to an American woman. But days after the accident, six immigration officers showed up on his doorstep and arrested him, along with four fellow construction workers whom ICE deemed “collaterals.”

“The police ratted him out because he got in a fender-bender,” said his wife, Martha. “I mean, why go to the effort? There are millions of people like Wilfrido, working crap jobs that Americans don’t want. Should they all go into hiding? Where is safe?”

In Philadelphia, police officers are trained to refrain from asking about immigration status, with such questions considered irrelevant to and even obstructive of effective policing. The city declines to hold anyone for ICE without a judicial warrant, even criminal suspects or inmates facing release.

But policies restricting police cooperation with ICE aren’t limited to so-called sanctuary cities. In the borough of Carlisle, Chief Taro Landis explicitly instructs local officers not to detain immigrants at ICE’s request unless they have committed a crime. “We have rules we have to go by — rules of criminal procedure, crime code and vehicle code — and none of them allow us to take someone into custody without a warrant,” said Landis. He said the same rules apply to all police in the state, and expressed surprise that some do not follow them.

By contrast, the Pennsylvania State Police has no guidelines for how its officers should handle encounters with undocumented immigrants, according to its spokesman, Ryan Tarkowski. It considers each traffic stop unique and views the state as a gateway to the Northeast, placing a special responsibility on its highway patrol officers to be on the alert for drug, gun, and human traffickers and to reach out as necessary to federal agencies.

Macke and his fellow troopers, then, decide on their own whether to question drivers and passengers about immigration status, summon ICE, and hold immigrants until ICE arrives. The state police do not keep track of cases in which troopers call ICE, although a new system being rolled out is supposed to address this, Tarkowski said.

Courts could rule these tactics unconstitutional, making police vulnerable to civil damages, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the district attorney for Allegheny County, warned police chiefs in the Pittsburgh area last summer.

“It should be noted that because Pennsylvania law enforcement officers are not permitted to independently enforce federal immigration law, they cannot extend the period of an investigatory stop to investigate immigration status without risking a constitutional violation,” Zappala wrote in a letter to the chiefs’ association.

Immigrants, like citizens, can sue municipalities for damages. States and their agencies have what the law calls “sovereign immunity” from financial claims in federal courts, but plaintiffs can sue troopers or their supervisors individually, and can sue agencies to halt an unconstitutional practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to prolong traffic stops beyond the time it takes to address the traffic violation. In addition, the court has written that “detaining individuals solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns.” The Fourth Amendment protects noncitizens as well as citizens from illegal searches and seizures.

For the AA members held by Macke last April, the traffic stop began at the side of the highway and then moved to a rest stop a mile away. There, Macke blocked their van with his car, boxing them in for an hour until ICE officers arrived. They said he would not let them drink from a water fountain or turn on the air-conditioning — it was 86 degrees that day — and refused their increasingly urgent requests to use the restroom. Some resorted to urinating in bottles.

By Easter evening, because of what their lawyers contend was an unlawful arrest, nine men without criminal records who were passing through Pennsylvania on a trip meant to reinforce their recovery from alcohol abuse had been booked into immigration detention at the York County Prison.

Macke declined through a state police spokesman to answer questions for this story. Calls to his personal cellphone went unanswered but inexplicably led to an email from a federal official — Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokeswoman in Washington.

Pennsylvania state troopers were “not pleased” by calls to their personal cellphones and were “threatening to charge the person with harassment if it doesn’t stop,” the ICE spokeswoman wrote, adding: “You might want to call off the dogs.”

In response to a reporter’s query detailing 14 instances in which state troopers detained a total of 31 immigrants for ICE, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called for a review of the cases and the agency’s overall policies regarding encounters with undocumented immigrants.

“Governor Wolf does not tolerate any type of discrimination,” his office said in a statement last week after the review was completed. The statement cited “a need for stronger uniform procedures addressing state police requests for assistance from outside agencies, including ICE, especially given the new pressure on state and local agencies from the federal government.” The state police, recently under new leadership, is revising its policies, the statement said.

The governor did not specifically address the pattern of troopers holding immigrants without warrants, which continued to occur as recently as last week.

A state police spokesman, asked to explain the legal basis for these actions, responded by email with a simple “No.”

Hunting for “Illegals”

I-81 stretches north from Tennessee to the Canadian border, entering Pennsylvania at the Mason-Dixon Line.  For the next 129 miles, travelers find themselves under the jurisdiction of Troop H of the Pennsylvania State Police, Macke’s home base. His cruiser is a familiar presence there; most of the 1,004 tickets he wrote last year were issued on I-81 or just off its exits.

South of Macke’s territory, in Maryland, explicit policies forbid state troopers to question travelers about their immigration status or to hold them without a warrant for pickup by ICE. The same is true when I-81 leaves Pennsylvania and enters New York.

But Pennsylvania has no such policies, as Rover Estrada, who lives in Maryland, discovered one Saturday last year.

Heading north on I-81 in his work van, Estrada, a carpet installer, was driving toward his final job of the day in central Pennsylvania. He was glancing at his phone to check the address when Macke, passing in the southbound lane, took a bead on him, as Estrada described it. The officer did a U-turn and pulled him over.

Estrada was ready when the officer appeared at his van window. He had his license, registration, and proof of insurance in hand. But to his astonishment, Macke had a different agenda.

“Are you a U.S. citizen?” Macke asked, according to Estrada.

Estrada, 29, was born in Washington, D.C., to Salvadoran parents. He was offended by Macke’s question and evaded it, he said, even as the trooper persisted: How long had he been in the country? When and where had he entered? Was he legal? Did he have a visa or work permit?

It was only when Macke turned his attention to Estrada’s passengers — two Hispanic coworkers whose status Estrada did not know — that he engaged with the officer’s questions to deflect attention from them. He pulled his passport from his work bag to prove his citizenship; his coworkers, who were in fact legal immigrants, proffered their documents.

Macke returned to his cruiser, spent half an hour on the phone and finally gave Estrada tickets for texting and failing to have a seat belt for his second passenger in the back.

“I was really upset and really angry,” Estrada said. “Nobody has ever asked me for my papers. He came with attitude first. Trying to say I was illegal. Based on what? Maybe my work van? My Latin face. It was so uncool.”

Macke grew up in Cumberland County, the area he patrols, which is 89 percent white. Already tall and imposing as a high school student — 6-foot-3, 215 pounds — he played defense for Carlisle High’s Thundering Herd football team and joined the Marines after 9/11, spending three months in Iraq as a reservist in 2003. He graduated from the police academy six years later.

After Macke’s name surfaced in several cases of immigrants turned over by the state police to ICE, reporters obtained and analyzed a statewide database for tickets written by all officers in Pennsylvania.

Three years of data show that Macke wrote more tickets with each passing year, and increasing proportions went to Hispanics — 6.3 percent in 2015, 9.5 percent in 2016, and 14.5 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the raw number of tickets he issued to Hispanics spiked by 73 percent in 2016 and 98 percent in 2017, as his overall ticket totals increased 14 and 29 percent, respectively.

Cumberland County, the heart of his patrol area, is 3.7 percent Hispanic; Pennsylvania is 7 percent Hispanic. Though he ticketed many drivers from other states, most were from Pennsylvania.

Also, calls to businesses ticketed by Macke revealed something the traffic violation data do not show: the apprehension of Hispanic passengers in commercial vans belonging to companies in the farm, landscaping, and construction fields, which rely on immigrant workers.

A ticket to Lepro Landscaping for a missing Department of Transportation sticker, for instance, gives no indication that a 51-year-old passenger — a stonemason considered one of the company’s top workers by owner David Lepro — ended up in deportation proceedings because Macke’s investigation went far beyond the sticker issue.

Estrada, for one, felt that Macke was “hunting for illegals.” So did Joseph Avila, 23, an Ecuadoran American who was born in New York and lives in Harrisburg.

Avila described stopping in his cargo van at a red light on the Carlisle Pike in eastern Cumberland County, a car’s length behind Macke, who was in the lane to his left. When the light changed, the officer hung back until he was next to him and gave him the once-over, Avila said.

When Macke pulled him over, he offered no explanation. Avila said he presented his Pennsylvania ID and told the officer he did not have his driver’s license on him. “But how could he tell?” he asked. “What was the reason he pulled me over? Everything was fine with my car.”

Tyree C. Blocker, who retired last month as Pennsylvania State Police commissioner, said his department “does not tolerate bias-based policing of any kind.” Spokesman Tarkowski added that anyone who “feels unfairly treated” should file a formal complaint with the department.

A review of statewide data on state and local traffic enforcement shows that while Macke is among the more prolific ticketers of Hispanics in the state, dozens of others top him. Eighty officers wrote more tickets to Hispanics than Macke last year, the vast majority of them in proportions exceeding that of the local Hispanic population. While some were state troopers, who are exposed to more out-of-town traffic, 23 local police officers ticketed Hispanics at rates at least double — and in some cases, more than five times — their representation in the population.

It is impossible, when looking at the data, to tell whether those officers are cooperating with ICE or targeting Hispanics, or whether other factors — such as the demographics of the territory they patrol — could explain the ethnic breakdown of ticket recipients.

Of the 19 undocumented immigrants Macke turned over to ICE last year, only two were ticketed for traffic violations.

One was a roving mechanic for a Houston car dealer, whose boss, Mohsen Sarvi, said that he did not know why Macke and another officer initiated the traffic stop but that the first thing they asked for was the Honduran-born man’s immigration papers. The mechanic was ticketed for driving without a license, and he and the company were slapped with 17 vehicle-related citations for which fines totaled $15,000. Then the mechanic, his wife — a U.S. citizen who was also asked for her papers — and their child were detained for four hours until ICE arrived. ICE released the man after verifying he was in the midst of a legalization process, Sarvi said.

Macke also held José García García, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant from Harrisburg, for ICE after stopping him in September for riding a dirt bike without a helmet. García has been deported.

The remaining 17 undocumented immigrants whom Macke turned over to ICE were passengers.

Police agencies maintain that it is reasonable as a matter of public safety — and officers’ safety — to verify the identities of all individuals in a vehicle during a traffic investigation, and the Supreme Court has upheld this position.

Asking Hispanics for identification more often than others, however, can raise concerns about racial profiling, said Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, who speaks for leaders of the 69 largest law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada.

Of 30 traffic stops by Macke for which reporters located and interviewed ticket recipients or their lawyers, seven involved passengers who were not Hispanic. In only one of those stops did Macke question the passenger, and that was after the driver notified Macke that he had a gun in the car.

Five of the 30 stops involved Hispanic passengers. Macke asked all of them for identification. Tarkowski, the state police spokesman, said that such requests can benefit undocumented immigrants, who “are often at greater risk of abuse and exploitation.”

ICE Will Show Up

One muggy afternoon last summer, on a winding road called Logistics Drive inside an industrial park in Carlisle, Macke spotted two Hispanic men leaning against a Honda Civic outside the gate of a shipping company warehouse.

The officer braked his cruiser suddenly, surprising the men, Juan and Luis, who were sharing a smoke and a chat before their evening shift began. Approaching with a fellow officer, Macke asked the men what they were doing, according to Juan, a 38-year-old Mexican man who asked that his last name be withheld so as not to jeopardize his legal case.

“Nothing, Officer, just smoking,” Luis responded in English, stubbing out his cigarette.

When Macke asked if they were “illegal,” the men assumed he must be an immigration agent. They acknowledged they were undocumented, and handed over their consular identification cards — and their car keys. Macke called ICE and handcuffed the two men as they waited silently for a tow truck to haul away the “Hondita,” which was registered in the name of Juan’s American-born friend Melonie Wright.

Wright, meanwhile, received an alarmed text message from a witness to the arrest, and she and her fiancé, Yancarlos Mendoza, rushed out to find Juan. It did not occur to Mendoza, an undocumented immigrant who had fled gang violence in El Salvador, that he might be putting himself at risk by heading to a state police station, he said.

“I had no issues with the law, apart from my immigration status,” he said, “which I knew had nothing to do with the police, who are there to protect and serve.”

Blocker, the former state police commissioner, said that the agency has not changed its protocol for calling federal immigration authorities in many years. But ICE officers in the state, freed from an Obama-era focus on apprehending criminal immigrants, have changed theirs.

In Mount Holly Springs, which is surrounded by sprawling farms with immigrant workforces, Police Chief Thomas L. Day Jr. said he had called ICE for decades whenever he encountered a driver without documents. Federal agents never responded, sometimes suggesting, “Tell them to turn themselves in,” he said.

“Now I know if I call ICE, they will show up,” said Day, whose department had a case last year for which ICE did in fact show up — after two hours, during which time Officer Shaun McGuire detained by the side of the road two undocumented immigrants who had no criminal records or pending warrants.

The consequences for immigrants can vary starkly from town to town, as individual police chiefs are left to set policy for their areas.

About 30 miles southeast of Mount Holly Springs, Matthew Millsaps, chief of police and public safety in West York, said he instructs officers not to detain noncriminals for ICE because they simply don’t have time, amid calls about domestic disputes, thefts, and auto accidents.

“If your home was being broken into, would you want your tax dollars going to one patrolman spending hours on the side of the road with one guy we’re not sure is a legal resident?” he asked. “We’d be doing the rest of our public a disservice.”

An extreme example of this inconsistency is in Carlisle, where Macke’s state police barracks is located. While the local police chief prohibits his officers from detaining immigrants without warrants, Macke has been using his authority as a state trooper to do exactly that.

When Melonie Wright showed up with her fiancé Yancarlos Mendoza at the state police barracks in Carlisle looking for Juan, she began making inquiries at the counter, then turned to ask a question of Mendoza, who was buying an orange Fanta at the soda machine.

“He heard me speaking Spanish, and his head swiveled, and he stared at me,” Mendoza said of Macke. The officer told him to empty his pockets as a prelude to entering the holding area to see Juan and Luis. “And then he took my wallet, and he opened it, and he saw my Salvadoran ID,” Mendoza said.

Wright’s heart sank, she said, as Macke put up his hand to block her — “You, no” — and ushered her fiancé into a holding cell with Juan, Luis, and a federal immigration agent who had arrived in the interim. Soon afterward, Macke emerged and said immigration would be taking Mendoza, with whom she was raising four children.

“I said, ‘You can’t do that. He was doing nothing wrong,'” she said. “I told him, ‘That’s not your job.'”

According to Wright, Macke responded, “Well, I’m working with Immigration to catch these kinds of people.”

Luis was deported. Juan was released after a month, and is fighting for permission to stay in this country with his 9-year-old daughter. And Mendoza, who did not qualify for bond because of a decade-old prior deportation, spent six months behind bars.

In October, Wright and Mendoza got married at the York County Courthouse in the presence of four armed guards and a police dog; he wore an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and leg shackles. They were allowed to kiss, their first and last physical contact during his detention.

Mendoza’s lawyer argued that he would face gang-related persecution, even death, if sent back to El Salvador. One of the nation’s tougher immigration judges accepted the argument, granting him “withholding of removal,” a form of protection from deportation.

Wright, who is now Melonie De Mendoza, waited until her husband was back by her side to speak up against his treatment by the state police. Now, she said, she wants to see officers who target immigrants held accountable for their behavior: “Nobody should have a badge if they have a mind-set like his.”

Editor’s Note

To determine how many Hispanics received tickets in Pennsylvania, Inquirer data reporter Michele Tranquilli obtained a database from the U.S. Census Bureau containing every surname reported 100 or more times in the 2010 census, with racial and ethnic data for how people with each surname classified themselves. Reporters considered a surname primarily Hispanic if more than half of the people with that name identified as Hispanic. For example, 94 percent of those with the last name of Rodriguez identified as Hispanic. Tranquilli then joined the surname data with a database obtained from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, containing information for the 4.2 million traffic tickets written by law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania from 2015 to 2017.

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