Gustavo Vargas Ramirez was stopped by an Anacortes police officer after failing to signal while taking a left turn in the Skagit County city. Vargas, a 35-year-old artist, claims he was subsequently arrested even though he had a valid driver's license and jailed for more than two months after deportation proceedings were launched.
The government ultimately abandoned its effort to deport Vargas, a Mexican national with no criminal history who'd been living in Skagit County for years. Late last month, public interest attorneys filed a lawsuit on Vargas' behalf against the government in U.S. District Court.
Through his attorneys, Vargas claims a Border Patrol agent lied about the circumstances of his arrest, claiming to have responded to the traffic stop when he in fact was at a Bellingham office. Police reports appear to back Vargas' claim that an Anacortes officer called the Border Patrol to check his immigration status.
Attorneys with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project representing Vargas contend the Anacortes police officer had no legitimate reason to suspect Vargas was in the country illegally, and that the Border Patrol shouldn't have directed the officer to arrest Vargas.
Describing the lawsuit as part of a "push for greater accountability," Matt Adams, an attorney with the Seattle nonprofit, said the incident highlights the problems inherent in local police participation in immigration matters and the Border Patrol's current approach to immigration enforcement.
"Our client was arrested despite the fact that there was no legal basis to detain him, let alone transfer him to the custody of Border Patrol," Adams said Tuesday by email. "The police officer sought out and followed the misguided instructions from Border Patrol agents.
"Moreover, the police reports demonstrate that Border Patrol sought to create justification after the fact in order to cover up the unlawful arrest and imprisonment."
Representatives for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Seattle U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the allegations.
Vargas was headed to his art studio on the evening of June 23, 2011, when the Anacortes police officer stopped him. Speaking in English, Vargas presented a valid license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration.
According to the officer's report on the incident, he contacted the Border Patrol after noticing during a records check that no Social Security number was associated with Vargas' license. Washington state law does not require drivers to disclose Social Security numbers if they can show residency by other means.
Speaking with the Border Patrol by phone, the officer was asked to put Vargas on. Questioned by the Border Patrol agent, Vargas declined to answer any questions without an attorney.
The officer said a Border Patrol agent then asked him to detain Vargas because he did not have a Social Security number. A Border Patrol agent would be sent to the Anacortes Police Department to pick up Vargas.
"I had Gustavo step out of his vehicle at that point and advised him that he was not under arrest for any crime I was investigating, but that he was being detained based on U.S. Border Patrol's request," the officer said in a report filed the following day.
A Border Patrol agent offered a different version of events in his account of Vargas' arrest.
In a copy of a June 24, 2011, report filed with the court by Vargas' attorneys, the agent contended the Border Patrol became involved after receiving a "translation assistance request" from Anacortes police.
According to the agent's report, another Border Patrol agent already in the area arrived at the traffic stop before Vargas was arrested. The agent's account contradicts the one given by the Anacortes officer, who said the Border Patrol agent arrived at the police station after Vargas had already been arrested at the Border Patrol's request.
Two months after the fact, the Anacortes officer made a second statement on the incident in which he reaffirmed his own account and noted "discrepancies" in the Border Patrol report.
Attorneys for Vargas note the Border Patrol agent gave the wrong location for the traffic stop he claimed to have attended.
Vargas refused to answer questions put to him by Border Patrol agents and was subsequently taken to the Northwest Regional Detention Center in Tacoma. He remained confined for more than two months before he was allowed to post bond and go free.
The immigration court case against Vargas was administratively closed on Feb. 6. He continues to reside in Skagit County.
Writing the court, attorneys for Vargas contend the Border Patrol had no legitimate reason to order his arrest. Likewise, the Anacortes police officer didn't have cause to believe a crime had been committed.
Calling the Border Patrol's conduct "extreme and outrageous," Vargas' attorneys contend he was deemed a suspect simply because he had a Spanish name and no listed Social Security number. The attorneys contend Border Patrol agents then lied to justify the unlawful arrest.
"In a blatant effort to cover up its egregious racial profiling and unlawful practices, (the Border Patrol's) subsequent report of Mr. Vargas's arrest is replete with fabricated details attempting to provide a justification for the arrest - details that contradict those found in two (Anacortes) police reports of the incident," the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project attorneys said in the lawsuit.
Vargas lost his job because of his arrest, his attorneys told the court. He was also unable to participate in the Anacortes Arts Festival, where he hoped to showcase his painting.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court at Seattle. The government is expected to respond in coming weeks.