“The Police Took Mommy”

1 Feb

How Reporting a Crime Nearly Resulted in Deportation for Florida Woman

Jan. 31, 2001

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

When Gov. Rick Scott spoke before the Hispanic Leadership Network earlier this month, people periodically yelled out, often in Spanish-accented English, “Let’s get to work.”

During his talk to the group, Scott spoke about being an advocate for jobs, education and families. Not one word about immigration. Which makes a lot of sense, because immigration is not within the jurisdiction of the state.

And there was certainly no talk of instituting harsh Arizona-style immigration enforcement here in Florida — a promise he made during his campaign. In fact, he seemed to be, conveniently enough, backing away from that pledge at the time.

Not anymore.

If Scott’s words are anything more than rhetoric for the virulently anti-immigrant wing of the tea party, it would be a folly of the grandest proportions.

A recent report by the Center for American Progress examined five communities that had attempted local immigration-focused initiatives. And it found that in communities such as Farmers Branch, Tex. and Hazleton, Pa., not only were the laws found to be unconstitutional but they cost local governments up to $5 million to defend.

We may not have to look that far. Florida has Tavares.

In late February 2009, Rita Cote, a mother of four, called police in that Central Florida town because her sister was allegedly attacked by her boyfriend. But when police showed up, rather than focus on the actual crime, they turned on Cote, who doesn’t speak English.

Tavares is located in Lake County. And the Lake County sheriff, appropriately named Gary Borders, had campaigned on the promise that he would deport illegal immigrants.

The police demanded to see Cote’s papers, and when she only offered a bank identification card, they arrested her.

The man who had allegedly left marks and bruises on her sister was never even picked up.

As bad as that might be, it gets worse. She was held for eight days without being able to contact family. She was transferred to immigration authorities in Broward County, in South Florida, hours away from her family, before finally being released. By the way, her children and husband are all American citizens — as long as the 14th Amendment stands. In fact, her husband is an Iraq War veteran.

After two years of frustration, including a police investigation that found — surprise — the lawmen involved had done nothing wrong, Cotes and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Borders.

The ACLU’s lawsuit claims that Cote is not the exception: From March 2007 to March 2009, there were more than 230 people detained in Lake County for alleged immigration violations. That in a county with a population of less than 300,000.

Understand that in 2009, there were only 297 cases of domestic violence-aggravated assault and fewer than 1,500 cases of domestic violence-simple assault in the county. Yet, faced with a case of at least simple assault, police instead arrested a mother of four and wife of a Iraq War vet who called police in an attempt to protect her sister.

Now, I’m sure some of you may not like the ACLU. Others will believe that Cote, having entered the country illegally as a child, shouldn’t have any right to take anyone to court.

Even if you do, we can all probably agree on one thing: If Scott and the state legislature push through Arizona-style immigration enforcement that promotes a “papers, please” approach, we’re going to see a lot more cases like this. Time, money and energy better spent on the vital issues Scott spoke about earlier this month.

“So every day I’m in office I’m going to focus on how we get more jobs,” Scott said near the end of his speech to the Hispanic Leadership Network. “I’m going to focus on jobs. I’m going to focus on education. And I’ll focus on making sure the laws that we pass in this state promote families.”

That’d be just fine with Rita Cote and her husband, Robert.

“‘He was hysterical,” Robert said, remembering his 7-year-old son’s call. “ ‘Daddy, daddy, they took mommy!’ ‘Who took mommy?’ ‘The police took mommy!’ ”

Promote families, governor, not rhetoric.

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