NPD vehicle

An NPD vehicle idles on Morley Avenue in downtown Nogales.

On Aug. 15, a Nogales Police Department officer stopped a car in downtown Nogales after the driver allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign. But when the driver didn’t provide a driver’s license and said she didn’t have a Social Security number, the officer asked if she was in the country legally, according to an incident report.

It turned out that she wasn’t, and the officer summoned the U.S. Border Patrol.

It’s not unusual for Nogales police officers to detain or help the Border Patrol find undocumented immigrants. Department statistics show that NPD officers working on Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that pays local cops to work overtime on border enforcement-related shifts, apprehended 44 undocumented migrants in just the first five months of 2019.

The Aug. 15 incident is notable, however, because it began with a routine traffic stop, rather than any initial suspicion that the driver was undocumented.

NPD officers working Stonegarden shifts in their NPD uniforms and cruisers, as the officer in the Aug. 15 incident was doing, also make a lot of traffic stops – 618 during the first five months of the year, according to NPD data. But department leadership says the incident doesn’t mean that queries about people’s immigration status are part of NPD’s standard procedures, whether an officer is on a Stonegarden or regular shift.

“We don’t enforce immigration laws. We enforce Arizona state laws,” said Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez.

“We’re not out there saying, ‘Are you undocumented? Are you documented?’ No, we don’t do that,” said NPD Lt. Robert Thompson. “But if there’s indicators that lead us to believe (that a person is undocumented), then that question will come into play.”

Ten years ago, state lawmakers passed a controversial bill – Arizona SB 1070, also known as the “show me your papers” law – that sought to crack down on undocumented residents in the state.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several parts of the law, it left standing a provision that requires local police to ask about immigration status if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is undocumented.

Yvette Borja, a litigation fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union in Tucson, said that “having a policy where immigration status is asked about during routine traffic stops makes communities less safe overall because of the chilling effect on victims of crime, who won’t want to report to police for fear of being outed as undocumented.”

“The murkiness of what constitutes reasonable suspicion is part of the issue,” Borja added, “because then police officers can rely on unconstitutional things like a person’s racial appearance in deciding that reasonable suspicion exists.”

In reference to the Aug. 15 traffic stop, Bermudez said that “there is no 1070 involved here. We’re not doing anything that we haven’t done for the last 35 years that I’ve been an employee with the Nogales Police Department.”

He added that he believes local officers asking about immigration status could erode the trust that his department works hard to earn.

“We need to make sure that we instill that trust and communication in our community,” Bermudez said. “However, that doesn’t mean that just because of that we’re not going to take any action on something that we see that merits us taking action.”

Taking action

At around 12:13 p.m. on Aug. 15, a brown Mitsubishi station wagon failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign on Morley Avenue, according to a report filed by an NPD officer after the incident and obtained by the NI through a public records request.

The officer, who was patrolling in the area, pulled the vehicle over on a side street.

When the officer asked the driver of the vehicle for her license, the woman said she had left it at home. When the officer asked for the driver’s Social Security number, she said that she didn’t have one.

Then, the report says, the officer asked the driver if she was in the country legally. At the same time, a passenger in the car answered “yes” and the driver said “no.”

After further questioning and a records check, the officer determined that the driver had a suspended license and an active warrant from Nogales City Court for “failure to pay.” He called U.S. Border Patrol and placed the woman under arrest.

A Border Patrol agent who arrived at the scene confirmed that the woman was undocumented and requested that she be detained while immigration agencies decided whether to take her into federal custody. She was subsequently booked into the Santa Cruz County jail.

Non-police sources who first brought the incident to the attention of the NI said the woman had been living in Nogales for several years.

Borja, the ACLU lawyer, said that local officers have other options besides asking about immigration status when they pull a car over and the driver doesn’t present identification.

“If a person hasn’t affirmatively stated that they’re undocumented, if there’s no other indication that the person could be undocumented – so absent reasonable suspicion that someone is undocumented – local police officers can provide someone with a warning or they can give them a civil citation for not having identification,” she said.

Willful admissions

Police logs show that several traffic stops made during August led NPD officers to call the Border Patrol in relation to drivers and passengers they suspected were undocumented.

But, according to police department documents, the individuals in at least some of those cases stated that they were undocumented without officers asking.

During a stop made on Aug. 18, an officer pulled over a vehicle for speeding on Hohokam Drive. The car was carrying a driver and five passengers.

The officer wrote in a subsequent report that “all subjects claimed to be Mexican nationals with no current legal status in the United States,” but it’s not clear from the report whether the officer asked the occupants about their immigration status.

On Aug. 12, an officer stopped a black Lincoln sedan near Elm Street and Grand Avenue.

The driver of the car told the officer he did not have a driver’s license and that he didn’t know who the car belonged to, the officer’s report states.

When the officer told the driver that his story didn’t make sense, the driver said, “To be honest, bro, we are both here illegally and I paid $1,000 to borrow the car from a friend.”

The officer called for Border Patrol agents, who took custody of both occupants.

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