Part one of a two-part series. [En español]
Speaking this spring at a rally for federal immigration reform to legalize authorized immigrants, Norristown’s council president declared, “We know that being able to stay with your family is important. To wake up in the morning and kiss your kids when they go to school is important.”
Gary Simpson spoke to members of the Montgomery County town's growing immigrant population. Attracted by the struggling town’s cheap rents and proximity to jobs in wealthy surrounding towns, Hispanics now make up 30 percent of Norristown’s population. Mostly from Mexico, the immigrants are praised for opening shops and restaurants in Norristown’s empty storefronts.
While officials publicly embrace the new face of Norristown, in recent years, the police department’s close collaboration with federal immigration enforcement has meant a number of residents have been deported.
A year-long investigation by WHYY/NewsWorks found evidence supporting allegations that members of the police force violated immigrants’ rights and worked closely with federal agents in ways the law does not allow.
A soft-spoken, petite woman from Norristown pointed out her new kitchen and back doors. The old ones had to be replaced after local police and federal immigration agents broke them down one morning last winter. The officers raided the large home her family shares with other Hispanic immigrants around dawn.
She asked not to have her name used because she risks deportation. Speaking through an interpreter, she recalled that a federal agent pushed her then-15-year-old daughter while she was on the stairs. Eight months pregnant, the teen was moving slowly on her swollen ankles.
“Stupido, stupido,” the mother berated the officer in Spanish. Couldn’t he see her daughter was pregnant?
The mother had broken immigration law. But attorneys say the immigration officers she confronted had entered her home unlawfully.
The search warrant Norristown police had obtained only authorized them to look for two objects belonging to a resident they’d already arrested for a crime. It said nothing about inviting along agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whom residents say immediately asked to see green cards.
“My daughter spent six hours in the hospital afterwards,” the woman said. “Before we left, the officers said to me, ‘We're going to be watching you.’”
No one accused her or anyone at home that morning of any crime. But immigration ordered all of them deported.
Their immigration attorney, Brennan Gian-Grasso, points out that ICE has invested lots of time and resources in building relationships with local police and in monitoring who’s in local jails. The stated goal is to deport dangerous people.
“If they were all criminals, if it were all gang members, OK, I think that’s something that everybody would get behind, but it's simply not. The numbers don't bear that out,” Gian-Grasso said. “Why are we spending all this money to arrest somebody, who a lot of the time, he's paying taxes and contributing to the community, going to church, has children in schools?”
Littering, drinking outside and being in the wrong place at the wrong time — in Norristown, immigrants and attorneys say these offenses can get you deported.
The longtime chief of Norristown’s police department, Russell Bono, spoke with WHYY/NewsWorks shortly before he retired in February — his permanent replacement has not yet been announced. He defended how his department has collaborated with ICE.
“We do not actively go out and enforce immigration laws. We just don’t. In fact, I have a directive that we don’t ask people their immigration status,” he said. “We do assist other law enforcement officers [or] agencies.”
Local police are not authorized to enforce federal immigration law themselves. But their “assistance” to federal immigration can quickly escalate even very basic encounters immigrants have with Norristown police.
Sweating the small stuff
Norristown has a common Pennsylvania backstory — a once blue-collar town that now struggles with concentrated poverty and violent crime. Officers on the predominantly white Norristown police force are also under a lot of pressure from long-time residents to deal with noise and other quality-of-life complaints.
“We have a fairly large population of young men who are just about college-aged,” explained Douglas Avilesbernal, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church of Norristown, recounting one of the most common scenarios that kick off a deportation case.
The young immigrant men get paid in cash, making them frequent targets for robberies, he said.
“If they go to a bar, they often get beat up on the way back by a lot of youth who have nothing to do. So, oftentimes what they do is they buy lots of beer and then they drink in their porch,” Avilesbernal said.
“Somebody calls the police. When the cops come, they are more likely to take them instead of saying 'Tone it down' or 'If you're going to do this, go in your house.'”
In Norristown last year, officers charged 1,002 people with disorderly conduct or public drunkenness. Norristown has a population of just 34,000. According to crime data published by the Pennsylvania State Police, Norristown officers were more likely than those in many departments to take people into custody. Half these violations led to arrests in Norristown. Countywide, the median odds of arrest for these violations were just under 10 percent. More often, police send people home with a ticket.
Once at the police station, all it takes is for someone’s fingerprints to show up with a prior flag from ICE to get immigration’s attention. Sometimes officers simply phone ICE.
ICE says it does not know how many people it has deported from Norristown or even from Pennsylvania as a whole. The agency says it only maintains these numbers by region.
Lawyers allege police made improper arrests
Immigration attorney Audrey Allen represents a man Norristown police arrested for drinking Coronas in his apartment building’s parking lot. She and her client say Norristown officers responding to a noise complaint, ended up arresting three men not involved in the original complaint, but they were the only ones out of a larger group who couldn’t produce American ID.
“It seemed to be a pretext for an arrest,” Allen said. Police turned her client over to ICE within hours. “To me, that just seemed to be some sort of collusion between the Norristown police and ICE, since none of the other persons in this group of ‘offenders’ were similarly charged.”
Gian-Grasso, the attorney representing the woman caught in the home raid, said they heard stories like this from Norristown for years. While other towns with large immigrant populations also referred people to ICE, “the types of stops and the manner in which people were referred [from Norristown] were frequently different. Traffic stops, home raids, things like that, especially when there was no type of police action or arrest at the same time."
From 2010 through the start of 2013, Norristown police sent 36 people — just under one a month — whom they hadn’t charged with any crime to Montgomery County Jail. Eighty percent have Hispanic last names. The involved agencies have conflicting explanations. Norristown sent them to jail to be transferred to other authorities. ICE said the majority were wanted by agencies other than ICE. Montgomery County pulled the files of about a third, and told WHYY/NewsWorks that ICE had requested those prisoners.
Asked if ICE agents ever spotted problems with arrests by Norristown officers, the agency says it’s not its responsibility to regulate who police departments take in.
“That has nothing to do with us as an agency," former ICE Regional Spokesman Ross Feinstein said. "Those are people that are being arrested and booked on charges in a local municipality outside the purview of this agency,” he said.
Norristown discusses change
Last fall, Norristown residents, working with an immigrant advocacy group from Philadelphia called JUNTOS, began making public accusations that police had targeted Latinos. At a meeting police officers organized in response, one officer said she’d witnessed colleagues threaten Hispanic suspects with making a call to immigration. The others expressed surprise and hurt at the accusations.
“We want a clean house,” Lt. Michael Shannon told WHYY/NewsWorks. “Unfortunately we've had the experience in the past where we might have had a bad officer or two and we're just very diligent in dealing with that. All matters that come to the chief are investigated fully by the department.”
Norristown Council President Gary Simpson responded to WHYY/NewsWorks' questions about specific allegations with a statement that “The NPD has and will continue to serve fairly, responsibly and professionally in protecting all residents of Norristown; and, we will continue to work with federal and state agencies as required by law.”
At a council meeting, when pressed by WHYY/NewsWorks about specific arrests made by Norristown officers that were questioned by attorneys, Simpson would not respond or elaborate.
Immigrants and attorneys say they have seen changes in recent months that make them optimistic. The borough has been sitting down to meetings, and leaders say they want to work with Norristown’s immigrant communities going forward.
The immigrants already arrested have moved on too, to immigration court.
In part two of our series, we take a look at the challenges of fighting deportation in immigration court.
This story has been edited to clarify Council Simpson's response at the council meeting.
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute with additional support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.