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ICE’s Columbus traffic stop challenged.

Earl Rinehart, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (TNS)

Zenon Natividad Cruz was driving with his wife to work early on the morning of Feb. 5, 2016, when the inside of their vehicle lit up with blue flashing lights.

A police officer was pulling them over. Natividad Cruz couldn’t think of what he had done wrong. Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to argue: He and his wife had come to the United States illegally 20 years earlier.

What followed was 18 days in jail and months fearing that he would be deported by an immigration-court judge in Cleveland, which has happened in two-thirds of the “removal” cases heard there.

But the native of Mexico, now 47, was in the one-third not ordered out of the country and separated from his family — at least not yet.

The officer didn’t say he was a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent or why he stopped them. And Natividad Cruz didn’t ask.

The couple gave the officer international identity cards. He asked for more ID, and Natividad Cruz handed over his Mexican identification card. He didn’t have a driver’s license.

After the officer walked to his SUV and returned, he allowed the couple to leave. He told them to be careful, according to a court document.

Ten minutes later, the agent, with backup agents, showed up at the German Village McDonald’s where the couple worked and took Natividad Cruz into custody as a “deportable/inadmissible alien.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued several federal immigration agencies alleging illegal stops and arrests in the past decade. Local lawyers said it’s difficult to quantify arrests from traffic stops because many immigrants don’t seek legal representation to challenge the arrests.

In the 2017 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 154 of the 235 cases heard in Cleveland ended with the person being deported, voluntarily or by court ruling, according to Syracuse University’s annual tracking of national immigration data.

Mexicans have the lowest rate of legal representation in immigration court: about half. Chinese immigrants have the highest rate, 90 percent, according to the Syracuse study.

Natividad Cruz’s three children, now in their 20s, were enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the federal program that lets children of undocumented immigrants work and go to school. That meant they already had an attorney who could help their father.

“We knew it was happening,” attorney Jessica Rodriguez Bell said of the improper traffic stops. In many cases, the undocumented immigrants don’t protest because they don’t know their rights, she said.

Rodriguez Bell persuaded a judge to release Natividad Cruz from jail on bond, and she prepared to challenge the arrest.

ICE relied on a previous DUI conviction stemming from a traffic accident as reason enough to stop Natividad Cruz. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security report said he was stopped because he matched the description of a “criminal alien” being hunted by a Fugitive Operations Team.

Rodriguez Bell argued that the agent stopped Natividad Cruz only because of his ethnicity. The agent also had no authority to make a traffic stop. She filed a motion to suppress all evidence against her client.

On Oct. 30, Judge Thomas W. Janas of Cleveland Immigration Court said he would hear arguments on the motion.

“The immigration officer had no reason other than what he could see — the respondent’s Hispanic appearance — to stop the respondent,” Janas wrote as the basis for his decision. “Race alone does not provide reasonable suspicion for an immigration officer to stop a vehicle.”

Rodriguez Bell was prepared to question ICE officers under oath at the hearing about the traffic stop. However, Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, asked the court to dismiss the removal proceeding.

Homeland Security and ICE officials did not respond to requests for interviews.

Natividad Cruz, speaking through interpreter Cristina Sanchez, was careful not to gloat during an interview at Rodriguez Bell’s Worthington office. He realizes his future remains uncertain.

Speaking through Sanchez, he said he drives the speed limit.

“He’s one traffic stop away” from being deported, Rodriguez Bell added.

Natividad Cruz said he spends more time at home, flying under the radar of law enforcement.

Under President Donald Trump, more local and state law-enforcement agencies are working with ICE to deputize their personnel to check immigration status. The “287(g)” program is part of a 1996 law that had been hardly used until this year.

According to ICE records, the Butler County sheriff’s office is the only Ohio department in the program. It allows jail employees to check the immigration status of inmates and report the information to immigration officials. The Butler jail is a major holding facility for federal-court defendants in the state.

East Cleveland has petitioned to join the program, a police official said. Asked why, the official, who didn’t want his name used, said, “That’s above my pay grade, and the chief’s on vacation.”

The future also is uncertain for Natividad Cruz’s children, who have families of their own. Absent congressional action, the DACA program that protects from deportation 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children will begin to expire March 5. Nearly 300,000 people could begin to lose their protected status in 2018, and more than 320,000 from January to August 2019.

Natividad Cruz didn’t return to the McDonald’s job because he feared it might bring police down on other Latino workers there. Instead, he took a job as a laborer on construction jobs.

“Everyone opens their door for workers here,” he said through Sanchez. For those who complain that the cheap labor of illegal immigrants takes jobs away from Americans, he said: “The United States has lots of work.”

Also, if the roles were reversed, he said, American workers would do the same to care for their families and give their children a future.

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