One minute he was paying a traffic fine to a court clerk. The next, he was being taken away by an immigration officer.
That's what happened to one resident of Lynnwood, says Latino organizer Maru Villalpando of the Washington Community Action Network (CAN). The man has since been deported due to the close -- and what Villalpando calls abusive -- ties that Lynnwood and its police department maintain with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department.
It's an informal relationship, says ICE spokesperson Lorie Dankers. ICE officers share desk space and go on ride-alongs with Lynnwood officers in cases that involve suspected illegal aliens -- particularly if the investigation pertains to gang activity.
But they don't always take people away, says Lynnwood police spokesperson Shannon Sessions -- sometimes they just help the Lynnwood officers do their job.
"It's not just about arresting illegal immigrants," Sessions says. Because ICE officers speak Spanish, they provide "understanding and clarification. It's a great partnership," she says.
Partnership is the word, and Lynnwood isn't alone. In Seattle, police are forbidden by city law to inquire about immigration status, but a number of cities across the state work closely with ICE to see that even law-abiding non-citizens are deported -- something Villalpando and other immigrant activists are fighting not only in Lynnwood but in Pacific.
Pacific doesn't have an ICE agent on call, but police often call ICE, says Lt. Edwin Massey of the Pacific Police Department, in traffic stops where a background check on the driver reveals only zeroes in the database where his or her Social Security number would be.
That's a sign, Massey says, of an illegal immigrant. "Zeroes are a big indicator,"he says. "For those who are in the country legally, to work, they have a Social Security number."
Massey says his department has no specific policy on what its role is in immigration enforcement. But, if the officer has the time, "We would like to pursue it," he says. Besides, if the driver claims not to speak English, "One call to immigration will solve that real quick," Massey says. "To me, that's better than calling the language line and trying to find an interpreter."
ICE spokesperson Dankers says it's also a matter of the agents' time: The top priority for immigration officers is criminal activity and national security -- and most minor violations don't meet that criteria.
Still, few people are deported merely for a traffic ticket, she says. "We're developing relationships with police departments, especially departments interested in the illegal immigration issue in their community," Dankers says. "This is a public safety issue."
Villalpando counters that using local police as part of immigration enforcement only helps actual criminals. When members of Latino and other communities fear being deported at the hands of local police, she says, they don't report shootings, robberies or domestic assaults -- something that's a major concern to Pacific Mayor Rich Hildreth, who met with Villalpando and Mexican members of his community in July to discuss the issue.
"The big problem I see is that we have people here legally who feel they're being harassed and there's fear in the community. And that's a problem," Hildreth says. "We don't want a wife or a child to be afraid to call the police to report domestic violence or any other crime" -- including the gang activity that the mayor says is a problem in North Pierce and South King counties.
The mayor is currently forming a citizens task force to look at what to do, but says he doesn't want to go to the extreme of asking police to ignore the law, the way Seattle does. "We're looking for ways to make sure laws can be enforced without coming to the level where people feel intimidated or targeted," Hildreth says.
Lynnwood police say they have a gang problem, too -- the purported reason, Villalpando says, that ICE was called in to begin with. But, as community-based efforts in Seattle's South Park demonstrates, the best ways to solve that problem, she says, don't involve deportation.
"They're calling ICE to help them deal with gangs," she says. "But in this case, stopping people based on their race and asking them for immigration papers when they just had a traffic incident is not gangs; it's not criminal activity. That's when ICE shouldn't be involved."
On Sept. 12, Washington CAN plans to bring the stories it has collected before the Lynnwood Diversity Commission. Villalpando hopes the commission will then draft a proposal asking the Lynnwood City Council to pass a "don't ask" ordinance similar to Seattle's.
"We want to bring those stories to Lynnwood," she says, "and let them know there are other ways to solve the problem and to create community instead of enforcing immigration laws.