Know Your Rights When Dealing with Law Enforcement
It is important for all of us, regardless of immigration status, to know how to exercise our rights if we are stopped by local police or immigration authorities. We all know that in Montana, there is not a lot of racial or ethnic diversity. Sometimes, that means that law enforcement officers single out people of color, or people who look or sound different than the “average” Montanan. This is called racial profiling, and it is against the law.
We all have an obligation to stand up against racial profiling, because that is the only way to prevent it from happening.
Racial profiling has a serious impact on immigrants living here with or without legal status. Many lawfully residing immigrants experience added hassles and burdens when going about their lives simply because they look or sound different. In addition, most of the time when immigrants in Montana who do not have legal status are discovered and put into deportation proceedings, it is because they were pulled over by local police for violations like speeding, having a broken tail-light, or suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. Some of these stops were based on racial profiling.
Do I have to answer questions about my immigration status if a local police officer asks?
Local police or the Montana Highway Patrol are not immigration officers. They are not authorized by law to investigate or arrest people for their immigration status, and have no right to ask questions about your immigration status. You do not have to answer these questions, and we suggest that you do not.
In some states like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, they recently passed laws allowing police to ask these questions. However, we don’t have a law like that here in Montana.
If you are stopped by police, you have the right to remain silent and politely decline to answer questions about your immigration status, and you should exercise that right! To protect all of us, you should not answer questions about your immigration status even if you are a citizen or legal resident, because these questions are not appropriate.
There are only a few things you actually have to tell the police. You must tell them your name and address. If you are driving, you have to show a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. If you don’t have any of these documents, you may get a ticket and have to go to court.
What should you do if a police officer asks about your immigration status?
Of course, we all know that even though they are not supposed to ask about your immigration status, sometimes they DO ask. It is important for everyone to refuse to answer questions about immigration status when they are stopped by local police.
It is uncomfortable to refuse to answer a police officer’s questions. However, you should remember that they are the ones who are actually doing something wrong. You can respond by politely stating: “If I have done something wrong, then please give me a ticket, but I do not understand why you are asking me questions about my immigration status and I will not answer those questions.”
If you have status and have nothing to hide, should you answer questions from law enforcement about your immigration status?
NO. Even if you have status, you should still assert your rights and refuse to answer inappropriate questions about your immigration status. That way it isn’t only the undocumented people who refuse to answer. If the only ones asserting their rights are the ones who do not have legal status, then we will never be able to stop racial profiling.
Won’t police officers arrest me if I don’t answer their questions about my immigration status?
If you stand your ground and refuse to answer questions about immigration status, police officers won’t always leave you alone, because they don’t always follow the rules. But many police officers are not willing to blatantly break the rules, and will stop the questioning if you refuse to answer.
I have found that most immigrants are honest people who are just trying to contribute to their communities and provide for their families. If stopped by police, the natural instinct is to be cooperative and honest, so many immigrants immediately tell police officers about their immigration status.
The problem is that if you are undocumented and you tell the authorities about your status, they will almost always call immigration and put you in deportation proceedings. There is no way to talk your way out of the situation once you have told them that you are undocumented.
I have heard from some police who did not even want to know about immigration status, but once they were told, they had to act on the information.
Of course, other police officers always ask about it, and are trying to use the information against you. If they are trying to deport you, then you should not make their job any easier.
If you don’t answer questions about your status, you might get put into deportation proceedings anyhow. But if you do answer questions, you are SURE to get arrested.
So you should remain silent, but DO NOT falsely claim to be a U.S. citizen.
What is the differences between local police and federal immigration officers?
If you are stopped by authorities, it could be:
- Montana Highway Patrol
- Local city police or Sheriffs
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”)
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) within 100 miles of border.
If you can’t tell what they are, you can ask!
What are my rights if I am stopped by local police?
The police officer should quickly tell you why you are being stopped. If they don’t tell you, you should ask.
If they think you may have committed a crime, they can ask for your name and address. You have to tell them.
They cannot ask for ID unless you are driving. Therefore, if you are not driving, you should tell them your name and address. But before you provide an ID, you should ask if you are under arrest! If not, tell them that you don’t need to show them an ID.
They cannot search you unless they have some good reason to think you have a weapon. You should say: “I do not consent to a search.”
If you are driving, you have to show them your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance.
You should not answer questions that you are not comfortable answering, like questions about your immigration status.
What if I only have a Mexican driver’s license?
You can drive with a Mexican license, but only if you are a visitor. If you live in Montana for 90 days, you are a resident, and you cannot use your Mexican ID. If you show a Mexican ID, you may only be highlighting your Mexican nationality.
If you don’t have a driver’s license, then tell them you don’t have it. They will ticket you for this, but they shouldn’t contact immigration.
If they are calling ICE, but they are not giving you a ticket for anything else: Ask, “Am I under arrest?” If not, they can’t hold you while they wait for ICE to arrive! Ask them if you are free to go.
What should I do if I am stopped by immigration authorities?
Immigration authorities are different from local police. Local police cannot ask about immigration, but federal authorities can.
What can ICE demand from you? They can demand you show them “alien registration” documents. Examples include a permanent resident card (“green card”), an I-94 admission document (the white document that you may have gotten when entering the country), Employment Authorization Document, or a border crossing card. If you don’t have these, it can be a minor crime they can arrest you for. However, it is very rare to be arrested for not having these documents with you.
Do not show fake IDs! If you either don’t have documents or yours are expired, you can calmly state that you do not want to answer any questions until you get an attorney. This is your right.
Do you have to let immigration officers in your house?
No, not without a warrant. If they say they have one, ask to see it. Do not step outside. The warrant must specifically say they can enter your house. If not, then they cannot enter your home without your agreement.
You may choose to share some basic information with the officers, but you should never make a sworn statement. Sometimes they want to interview you and record it. It is typically not in your best interest to agree to this. You can say you are not talking without your attorney. You have a right to an attorney before talking.
Any information you provide will only be used against you. It is not rude to refuse to talk. It is your right.
What happens if I am arrested by immigration authorities and placed into proceedings?
You will not be immediately removed, and you will almost always get a chance to see an Immigration Judge if you request it. However, if you have a final order of deportation against you, or you were previously deported, then you may not have a right to see an Immigration Judge.
You should never agree to voluntary departure unless you are absolutely sure that you want to go back to your home country.
Don’t sign anything unless you understand what it says!
You should usually try to talk to an immigration attorney, because you may have some defense available to you that you don’t know about, so you can stop the deportation!
The immigration officers who arrested you have the right to release you from detention while you wait for your hearing in Immigration Court. You might be released on your own, or you might have to pay a “bond” to be released from detention. A bond is a cash payment that they take from you, and you get the money back after the proceedings are over. They do this to make sure that you attend the hearing they schedule for you.
You could be moved out of state while you wait to pay bond. You should try to set aside some money so that in case you ever need to post a bond you can afford to pay for it and get released from detention.
You will be given the chance to make a phone call. Keep an attorney’s number with you in case you need to call from a detention facility.
Remember that this is not legal advice, and you should always try to consult with an attorney because every case is different!