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Lawyer: Tactic used by ICE agents amounts to extortion

April 29, 2019

PHOENIX (AP) — Federal agents seeking to arrest a man in the country illegally brought his sister to a northern Arizona home where he was staying and told her she would be released from immigration custody and instead be given a court date if she persuaded the property owner to agree to a search, according an attorney who claims the promise amounted to extortion.

The tactic was used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the April 19 arrest of Jose Guadalupe Montelongo-Morales outside a trailer in Sedona, said his attorney, Lee Phillips.

As federal agents searched for Montelongo-Morales, 28, they conducted surveillance on his relatives and arrested his father and two sisters, all of whom were in the country illegally, Phillips said.

“This is totally extortion,” Phillips said, contending the action made his client think they would be deported if he didn’t surrender.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe declined to comment on Phillips’ criticism.

The federal agency has previously said it is making more arrests because dozens of local governments around the country stopped honoring requests for jails to detain people past their release date so that immigration authorities could take them.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said that denying detainer requests puts its officers at risk because they have to go into the community to make arrests.

Gabriel J. Chin, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, said courts have allowed prosecutors to use relatives of accused criminals for leverage. But what immigration officers did with Montelongo-Morales’ sister is more of a grey area, he said, even though ICE was within its rights to arrest her.

“I would say it’s pretty unusual,” Chin said. “It’s a hardball tactic.”

Ray Ybarra Maldonado, an immigration attorney in Phoenix who isn’t involved in the case, said he has never seen the tactics used before.

“It’s drastic government misconduct to use people’s family to get people to turn someone in. It is only going to drive a wedge between ICE and the Latino community,” Maldonado said. He said the sister’s due-process and equal protection rights may have been violated.

Montelongo-Morales was arrested by Flagstaff police on Dec. 28 for failing to appear in court after he didn’t finish paying fines from a 2016 misdemeanor drunken driving conviction.

He was deported after he was sentenced in that case. He re-entered the United States and was stopped for speeding by Flagstaff police and arrested for failing to appear in court. Phillips said federal agents were waiting outside the jail when his client was released from local custody on Feb. 14.

Fearing he would be arrested immediately after his release, 50 immigrant rights advocates gathered at the jail, Phillips said.

Montelongo-Morales and several supporters who were dressed like him had covered their faces before the caravan of supporters left the jail in different directions, making it difficult for agents to spot Montelongo-Morales, Phillips said.

“You could see they were furious,” Phillips said. “They clearly didn’t want to back down and let Jose get away.”

It’s unclear how agents came to suspect that Montelongo-Morales was at the trailer in Sedona. Phillips said the property owner is a family friend of Montelongo-Morales’ sister.

Montelongo-Morales and his father are being housed in immigration detention facilities.

While in jail in Flagstaff, Montelongo-Morales filed a lawsuit challenging Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll’s policy of detaining immigrants who are arrested on state charges for up to 48 hours after posting bond so federal immigration authorities have time to take them into custody.

John Masterson, an attorney representing Driscoll in the lawsuit, said Montelongo-Morales lost his legal standing to maintain the civil case when he posted bond out of the local jail after federal authorities withdrew their request to detain Montelongo-Morales. A similar lawsuit filed by another man over Driscoll’s immigration detainer policy was dismissed last summer when the man’s release from jail caused him to lose his legal standing to press the civil case.

Mik Jordahl, a Sedona attorney who doesn’t represent Montelongo-Morales but was asked to witness the raid, said the federal agent in charge at the scene made it clear that Montelongo-Morales’ sister would be released if the property owner agreed to a search of his trailer.

His sister, who was released from custody and given an immigration court date after her brother voluntarily walked out of the trailer, was overcome with grief and began sobbing after her release, Jordahl said.

Jordahl said he told the agent in charge that he disapproved of “using family members as pawns.”

“Government agencies should not be using their power to punish people they are embarrassed by,” Jordahl said.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.

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