Over a two-hour stretch one night in April, state troopers stopped two cars on a highway in Inwood, W.Va., a little-known hamlet surrounded by apple orchards in the northeast corner of the state.
In both stops, troopers asked the vehicles' occupants, all Hispanic patrons of a nearby Latin nightclub, for identification. When some handed over Mexican driver's licenses, the troopers contacted the Pittsburgh branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained the drivers and passengers on charges of illegal entry.
Six occupants of the stopped vehicles face deportation proceedings and are challenging the police stops as unwarranted. Immigration lawyers say their clients fell victim to a pattern of racial profiling by state troopers, who they say purposely staked out motorists a mile from Lobo's, a dance club that plays "norteno" music on Saturday nights and draws largely Hispanic patrons from Winchester, Va.
The attorneys plan to ask immigration court judges to throw out these cases on the grounds that the state troopers stopped the cars because of their occupants' race.
"ICE will not tolerate racial profiling at all," said public affairs agent Mark M. Medvesky. He would not comment specifically on the Inwood stops since proceedings are pending.
Sgt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State Police, was also unable to comment on the Inwood stops for the same reason, but said, "We don't do racial profiling here in West Virginia. Law enforcement is in the business of criminal profiling. We do actively profile criminals, people who violate the law. But we have not, nor will we ever engage in racial profiling."
David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said this sounded like "a classic case" of racial profiling, adding, "The cops will tell you (racial profiling) is illegal and they'll tell you they don't do it. Cops will say, 'I stopped them for a legitimate reason. I ran their names and found reason to report them.'"
Tackling a racial profiling allegation will be complicated in the parallel universe of immigration court, where clients are not afforded the same protections as in criminal or civil court.
In a civil rights suit, for example, an individual can request discovery of police evidence that might help demonstrate a pattern of racism. In immigration court, there's no guarantee a judge will allow that request. One of the three Inwood attorneys, Michelle Mendez, borrowing a phrase from an immigration judge, said tackling these matters in immigration court "is like trying a death penalty case in traffic court."
Immigration lawyers say the Inwood arrests are part of a nationwide pattern of de facto crackdowns on Hispanics by state and municipal law enforcement in the spirit of the new law passed in Arizona.
"A lot of people end up in removal proceedings because of a traffic stop," said Mendez, who works out of Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. These disconnected arrests, wherever they occur, often aren't even a blip on a local community's radar, she said.
Many deportation arrests slip through the cracks before a qualified lawyer gets a look at them, attorneys said. An Amnesty International report in 2009 found that among individuals facing removal proceedings in Pennsylvania, 84 percent of detained immigrants and 58 percent of all clients did not have attorneys.
Valerie Burch, an American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania attorney representing three Inwood cases, said after troopers booked the two cars' occupants at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, W.Va., none of the suspects was able to phone potential attorneys, or notify family members or day care providers of their whereabouts for three days.
The phones at the jail did not work, they said.
The group came to the attention of a lawyer when they were taken to York County Prison, an East Coast hub for ICE that processes thousands of detainees facing deportation each year.
The six Inwood cases are inching forward in immigration court, which operates differently from what most people picture when they think of a court. Immigration court is not under the judicial branch -- it's an administrative body under the executive branch of the federal government, which means clients aren't guaranteed the right to a lawyer and other constitutional protections.
Burch, of the ACLU, offered a preview of what she will tell the judge.
"I think there were many arrests of Hispanic motorists leaving Lobo's in recent months. ... Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's what used to happen down South to the African-American population.
"When people used to get together in one place they would be persecuted by law enforcement. Police would find any reason to stop them and harass them because of the color of their skin," she said.