NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Two Honduran men face deportation even though a U.S. Department of Homeland Security staff lawyer recommended that the migrant workers be released because they were improperly arrested by Louisiana police in a case of alleged ethnic profiling.
Gustavo Barahona, 29, and José Adan Fugan, 36, were arrested along with three other men by New Llano police on May 29 outside a motel in the western Louisiana town as they waited to go to work early that morning.
In a Sept. 21 email inadvertently sent to the men's immigration lawyers, DHS attorney Megan H. Mack recommended releasing the men from custody because they appeared to be arrested "solely for an immigration status check."
The arrest was improper because the New Llano police appeared to target them "based on their ethnicity and the way they were awaiting pickup for a job," said Mack, the DHS officer of civil rights and civil liberties in Washington.
She reviewed the case after the men's lawyers brought it to her attention, noting they were never charged with a crime. Mack said profiling is "not a legitimate" police practice unless there are extraordinary circumstances or a threat.
After being arrested, the New Llano police called in Border Patrol agents who ran immigration checks on the men, the email said. Barahona and Fugan have been in custody ever since. The three other men were released.
Both migrant workers were living in New Orleans before they were arrested and their cases have been championed by the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group for immigrants that has assisted an influx of Latin Americans who arrived after Hurricane Katrina eager to work in the rebuilding of the devastated region. The number of people of Hispanic origin in Louisiana has nearly doubled since 2000, from about 2.4 percent of the population to about 4.8 percent in 2014, Census figures show.
"This is really descriptive of how immigration does its enforcement," said Jolene Elberth, an immigration organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "They're relying on local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcement."
The group released Mack's emails on Thursday and held a protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in New Orleans on Friday.
Barahona and Fugan had not been deported as of Friday, said Bryan Cox, a DHS spokesman in New Orleans.
But he added that the men had been deported before and therefore would not benefit from a change in enforcement policy instituted last November giving DHS officers more discretion in who they remove from the country.
"After conducting a comprehensive review of both cases, at this time ICE has chosen not to exercise prosecutorial discretion," Cox said.
Cox had no comment on the email by Mack, which was sent to ICE Director Sarah Saldana.
Lt. Josh Foster of the New Llano Police Department said the men were questioned because they appeared to be loitering.
"We've had a lot of problems with narcotics in these motels," he said.
The men were then taken into custody because they had no identification. "They didn't specifically pick them up because they were Latino," Foster said.
Police then handed the men over to Border Patrol agents because they weren't sure they were in the U.S. legally.
The men presented Honduran passports to the police, according to the email by Mack.