Arrest & Detention Fuels ICE Debate

An undocumented Honduran immigrant was released from the Lake County jail and handed to federal authorities Tuesday after police arrested her a week ago while responding to a domestic-assault call.

Civil-rights attorneys say the detention violated her rights, and advocates are calling for an end to arrests of immigrants by local police.

Rita Cote, a 23-year-old mother of three U.S.-born children, was held for more than a week before the Lake County Sheriff's Office realized it and notified immigration authorities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a petition in federal court alleging violations of Cote's constitutional rights. But before the case was heard, the woman was released to Border Patrol agents.

The arrest and subsequent detention have left the family in despair, said Cote's husband, Robert Cote, a 37-year-old U.S. citizen. He said that on the day of the arrest, he got a call at work from their 7-year-old son, Robert Jr., who was crying hysterically because police were taking his mother away. They have two other sons, ages 4 and 2.

"They ripped her away from the children, put her in handcuffs and put her in the SUV and took off," Cote said. "I am lost. If you were to cut me in half and one half of me is gone, that's how I feel."

ACLU attorney Glenn Katon said the group was determining how to proceed legally.

"The underlying issue of the illegality of the arrest and detention are still very relevant," Katon said.

Tavares police officials did not return calls for comment. A spokesman for Lake County Sheriff Gary S. Borders said that, aside from the delay in county jail, the case was a routine arrest and detainment.

"We made a mistake. We failed to notify the authorities that she was ready for pickup, and we will look into how that failure took place," said Sgt. John Herrell of the Sheriff's Office.

"If we come across an illegal immigrant and Border Patrol or immigration enforcement authorizes us to detain her, we do that."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said that Cote was being held at the Broward Transitional Center as the department prepared to carry out a judge's deportation order.

Meanwhile, immigrant-advocacy groups were incensed about what they say the case exemplifies: a tough enforcement approach that diverts police resources from fighting crime.

Several area groups are planning a demonstration Thursday to denounce arrests of immigrants by police in Lake County, a task they say should be left up to federal agents.

"It's shoddy police work," said Susana Barciela, policy director with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami. "They ignore the domestic-violence offense and start looking for other infractions that they don't have the authority to pursue."

The incident took place Feb.16 at Cote's Tavares home. Her sister, Sonia Enriquez Perdomo, and sister's boyfriend, Isai Ramirez, lived in a rented room there. Someone called 911, then hung up. According to the court filing, Ramirez had grabbed Enriquez Perdomo by the neck and was choking her after she asked him to leave.

Cote and Enriquez Perdomo said in court affidavits that the two officers from the Tavares Police Department told Enriquez Perdomo that she needed to go to the police station to pursue the domestic-violence case. Then they asked everyone to produce identification.

They took Cote, who had been acting as Enriquez Perdomo's interpreter, to county jail after running her name through an immigration database. She had entered the country illegally when she was 15.

These incidents are not uncommon because the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency stepped up enforcement and started collaborating with police departments, said Gail Seeram, an immigration attorney in west Orlando.

"I have four people in detention right now with similar cases," Seeram said.

A coalition of groups, including Democracia USA, the Farmworkers Association of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said Tuesday that they were joining forces to ask Lake County to explain why it is spending its resources pursuing people whose only violation is breaking immigration laws.

"Not only are families being torn apart and people being scared, but people are afraid of contacting the police for things like domestic violence," said Roberto Cancel of Democracia USA in Central Florida.