Daniel Valenzuela had just dropped his daughters at school when he was stopped by a Corona police officer who said he was speeding.
Valenzuela didn’t get a ticket. He got deported.
Corona police officers asked him about his immigration status, held Valenzuela in a patrol car and called U.S. Customs and Border Patrol — in violation of state and federal laws, according to a claim filed Wednesday against the city of Corona by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The ACLU is seeking $1 million for Valenzuela, whose wife and three daughters remain in Corona.
“It’s a tic toc of state and federal constitutional violations and violations of the California Values Act,” ACLU attorney Eva Bitran said.
Immigration-rights advocates in the Inland Empire say there have been other similar cases in Corona, and they want the police department to better train its officers to comply with California’s sanctuary law. That law, known as the California Values Act, or SB-54, forbids officers from asking about someone’s immigration status and limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
“This is not an isolated incident,” Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Services Center, said during a press conference with Bitran and other immigrant-rights advocates in Corona Wednesday. “We’ve had issues not only with Corona but with (other) Inland Empire police departments enforcing immigration laws.
“It speaks to the fact that this is a practice,” Amaya added. “For political reasons or personal beliefs, they take it on their own to enforce immigration laws.”
Corona Police Chief George Johnstone said in a statement that Valenzuela’s case is “an isolated incident” that led to an internal investigation, a meeting with representatives from the ACLU and other advocacy groups, and renewed training of all officers on policy and law related to the sanctuary California Values Act.
“The Corona Police Department is committed to providing the highest quality service to all members of our community,” Johnstone said.
Valenzuela, 34, whose full name is Daniel Alberto Valenzuela Rodriguez, was stopped by Officer Jason Gardner on Jan. 31 for allegedly driving 70 miles per hour in a zone that had a 45 MPH limit, according to the police report. He presented his Mexican driver’s license and told the officer he had a passport and visa. Bitran said Valenzuela offered to have someone bring those documents, but was told instead to remain his car.
A second officer, Edgar Castaneda, arrived and served as an interpreter. He asked Valenzuela questions about his background and immigration history, including where his parents are from, why he was in the United States and specifically in Corona, the names of his family members and whether he was authorized to be in the country, according to the claim. Valenzuela was then asked to sit in the patrol car and wait further.
Gardner wrote in his report that he called the Temecula checkpoint of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to verify Valenzuela’s statements and found that he had overstayed his tourist visa, which had expired Jan. 16. Immigration officials asked Gardner to hold Valenzuela until they could arrive and take him into custody.
“In this case, the cooperation is abundantly clear,” Bitran, the ACLU attorney, said.
The ACLU argues that in addition to violating California’s sanctuary law, the officers’ actions violated other laws, including unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress when they “detained him without cause to conduct an immigration investigation.”
When he was stopped, Valenzuela was in California visiting his wife and children in Corona on a 10-year tourist visa that allows for multiple entries, usually for a maximum of six months each time, according to Amaya. A commercial driver in Mexico, he came to California regularly but missed the last deadline because of an illness in the immediate family. His family didn’t know where he was in the immigration system for at least a week, Amaya said. Valenzuela may still be eligible to request a future tourist visa, after a year in Mexico, but Amaya said it will be much more difficult to attain.
One other case involving an alleged violation of the California Values Act is pending in Laguna Beach. An Orange Coast College student with a temporary legal status known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) and no prior criminal record, was taken into immigration custody after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. Meanwhile, in San Bernardino, a U.S. citizen won a $55,000 settlement after she was held by deputies, detained by immigration agents and threatened with deportation last October.
A report released earlier this year by UC Irvine Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic and two immigrant rights organizations said some law enforcement agencies are directly violating the state’s controversial sanctuary law and others are skirting it by following out-of-date policies or exploiting loopholes.
The California Values Act is widely panned by those who are against illegal immigration. More than 60 municipalities across California have voiced opposition, including Huntington Beach, which won a court case — now under appeal — that argues the state law unconstitutionally interferes with the city’s charter authority to enforce local laws and regulations.
But for advocates like Luis Suarez, of the Inland Coaltion for Immigrant Justice, adherence to the sanctuary law is crucial: “The consequence of that police office violating the law resulted in his deportation.”
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