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For Connecticut Police, Car Accident Spotlights Balancing Act On Immigration

Charles Reed
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

On Monday Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police officers cannot arrest undocumented immigrants who are not facing criminal charges. Connecticut has had a similar law since 2013. There’s a possibility though that the law may not have been followed in the arrest of an undocumented immigrant in the state last month.

Cristian Sampedro has lived in New Haven for 14 years. In early June, he got into an accident on I-91 north of New Haven while driving home from work.

It wasn’t a serious accident — he had insurance, the car was registered — but there were two problems. First, Sampedro does not have a license. Second, he is an undocumented immigrant.

When the Connecticut state trooper found out, he put Sampedro in the back of his cruiser. Thirty minutes later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up.

John Lugo, an immigration activist helping Sampedro with his case, said, “We went to the state police and got the report, and the state police stated on his report that he called immigration on him.”

Lugo says that what happened was a violation of something called the TRUST Act, a 2013 Connecticut law meant to protect undocumented immigrants, like Sampedro, who have not been charged or convicted of felony offenses, from deportation.

But while Lugo might claim that the TRUST Act was violated, Yale Law School Professor Michael Wishnie, is not so sure.  

“The TRUST Act doesn’t forbid all cooperation with immigration enforcement, but it limits certain forms of cooperation between state jails and police on the one hand and immigration on the other.”

Wishnie specializes in worker and immigrant rights. He says there’s no law against police calling ICE agents. But the TRUST Act prohibits officers from holding people just because of an immigration detainer.

A detainer is not an arrest warrant. It’s more like a request.

So did the police officer detain Sampedro in his car? And if so, on what authority?

Wishne says in Sampedro’s case, it appears the spirit of the TRUST Act might have been violated. Connecticut passed the law in order to prevent indiscriminate arrests of undocumented residents. Wishnie says with the recent uptick in ICE arrests and activity, Connecticut might have to be more vigilant in enforcing the TRUST Act.

“Given the intensified immigration enforcement that we’re seeing, it’s imperative that Connecticut update its policies to continue to achieve the underlying purpose of the TRUST Act, which is to keep our police focused on public safety priorities, violent crime, drug crime, and not be distracted and pulled away from those duties.”

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy’s office and the state police are looking into the Sampedro incident. A spokesperson for the police said they’re committed to the TRUST Act, and if there was a violation, they’ll take every step necessary to rectify it.

Whatever the result of that investigation, it’s not going to do much for Sampedro.

He was released, on bail, from the detention center and is now facing removal proceedings by the federal court.

Sampedro says he’s just happy that he’s once again with friends and family while waiting for his court date.

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