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Immigrant advocates hold a press conference outside the Arriba! Las Vegas Workers Center in downtown Las Vegas on Sept. 14, 2018 to discuss an uptick in people who end up in deportation proceedings with no criminal record aside from unpaid traffic tickets. Photo by Michelle Rindels

Ruby Flores González was scheduled to give birth on Saturday, but the baby’s father was expected to miss the big moment — Jorge Franco is in the Henderson Detention Center and is at risk of being deported for unpaid traffic tickets.

It started with two unpaid tickets, then an incident in April when police stopped Franco, a native of Guatemala who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years, because his turn signal didn’t work. The situation came to a head last week when police were apparently checking plates at random.

“He told me that he was driving and that the police were checking plates. They checked his, saw his license, and noticed that he had a warrant out for his arrest,” Flores González said in an interview in Spanish with The Nevada Independent after a press conference in downtown Las Vegas.

Franco was taken to the North Las Vegas City Jail, where he stayed for five days, and then taken to Henderson, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrant detainees. His pregnant girlfriend, a legal U.S. resident, and his American citizen mother have been unable to contact him since.

Immigration lawyers say anecdotally that situations like Franco’s are becoming increasingly common, although ICE and local government entities have stopped disclosing information that would pinpoint exactly how many people are detained by ICE for traffic violations alone as opposed to more serious violations. In March, for example, a 30-year resident of Reno was deported after ending up on ICE’s radar for a 2013 traffic violation.

The trend comes as the Trump administration has stated that virtually all illegal immigration cases are an enforcement priority, and as Nevada continues operating under a system in which traffic ticket fines are a vital source of government revenue and where not paying can lead to an arrest warrant. At least 22 states have “decriminalized” minor traffic violations since 1970, and a committee of Nevada legislators is recommending such a change in the 2019 session, although attempts in 2013 and 2015 to do so failed.

Progressive activists have also seized on the issue as Nevada candidates’ traffic tickets have made headlines — Democratic attorney general candidate Aaron Ford was arrested for an unpaid ticket in Texas in the early 1990s, while Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt only recently paid off a 15-year-old traffic ticket in Maryland, where such offenses are decriminalized.

“It's really important for people who live here to ask, ‘is this how we want our neighbors to be treated?’” said Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, which offers pro bono immigration defense. “Many of us have traffic violations on our own histories. How would we want ourselves to be treated? ... It might be one of the most acute immigration policy questions we are facing here in our local community and very few people are talking about it.”

The system

If an immigrant who’s in the country illegally is arrested on a warrant for unpaid traffic tickets, the situation can escalate through what’s known as a “detainer.” That’s when ICE asks a local or state jail to hold the person for longer than they otherwise would because they may want to take them into custody for immigration enforcement purposes.

“It's important to understand that it's always an option. It's not required for a local jail to cooperate with ICE,” Kagan said.

But Kagan said it appears that Southern Nevada’s local jails have moved from rejecting some of the detainer requests during the Obama years to rejecting almost none of them since 2017, according to ICE data compiled by Syracuse University.

The clinic has also noticed an uptick in calls from the detention centers from people who, upon cross-checking with court records, appear to have no other criminal issues aside from traffic ones. Such calls used to come in about once a week and are now coming in about once a day, he said.

“This, again, is not what our local officials tell us they are doing. This is not linked to public safety. These are not violent criminals, these are people who have been living in Las Vegas typically longer than I have,” he said.

Still, it’s unclear how many people have landed in ICE custody solely on traffic issues, and how many have more serious underlying charges; that data is not voluntarily disclosed. The Nevada Independent submitted public records requests on Friday to the Clark County Detention Center, Henderson Detention Center and Las Vegas City Jail in an effort to ascertain the scope of the practice.

Kagan wonders whether local jurisdictions are becoming more compliant with ICE because they don’t want to be labeled a “sanctuary city.” Early in 2017, the Trump administration threatened to withhold federal funding from any jurisdiction it deemed to be a “sanctuary” — a term with no legal definition but that generally means local law enforcement agencies don’t assist with federal immigration enforcement activity.

“On the one hand, Sheriff [Joe] Lombardo said we cooperate with ICE just to get rid of the worst of the worst, and he's always said that means felons,” Kagan said. “On the other hand, they were very clear last year that they were desperate not to be labeled a sanctuary. They're very afraid of being called a bad word. And my concern is that because there's so little ability to monitor what they're actually doing every day in the jail, that the pressure to just cooperate with ICE, with this administration, has overcome what the sheriff has previously said about what his priorities were.”

Devastated by tickets

Immigrants who spoke with The Nevada Independent said the tickets were too much of a burden to pay. Flores Gonzalez said Franco faced the decision of paying the fines or paying for doctor’s visits since she doesn’t have full health insurance.

“The police did tell him he had to pay it. They gave him the ticket and all that, but he was more focused on supporting our family, because right now I can’t work,” she said.

Alicia Moya, 27, is a mother of two who’s on the board of her son’s PTA. She had four tickets, all of them for driving without a license and none of them carrying a fine less than $400.

She said an arrest this summer — and a month of incarceration in North Las Vegas, Henderson and Pahrump — have “destroyed her.”

“It’s ridiculous because I lost my name once I got stopped. I became a number. I was a number three times: In City, in Henderson, and Pahrump," she said. "You lose yourself. You just become an inmate, another person in jail, another person [that is] wasting your ‘tax money.'”

Even though her family helped her get out of detention in a matter of weeks, she said she’s lost her job and the place where she was staying. Family members have avoided contacting her directly because they fear ICE is tapping her phone, and some even avoid her altogether out of fear they’ll get on ICE’s radar for associating with her.

She directed some of her anger toward Laxalt, who didn’t suffer such dire consequences over an unpaid ticket.

“If you are so entitled and have the chance to pay the $140, give me that chance. Just because I’m Mexican and illegal, I don’t get that chance? The court should be the same for everybody,” she said.

A legislative committee has been working to address the criminalization of traffic tickets since late last year and recently approved a list of proposed bills in the 2019 session, including ones that would reduce minor traffic violations to civil infractions, allow a discount on the fine if it’s paid early, and call on the court to evaluate whether the defendant has the ability to pay when they miss a payment.

The committee is also sending out a series of letter to courts, including one directing them to review their fee schedules and make sure fines aren’t excessive.

It remains to be seen how lawmakers and the next governor will address the matter. When asked about the criminal penalties for unpaid traffic tickets last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak said the state incarcerates too many people but didn’t directly commit to specific changes. Laxalt’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment about his stance on the legislative committee’s recommendations.

Kagan said such changes could help any Nevada resident who must decide between paying for basic necessities and paying a fine. But it would be particularly significant for immigrants, whose lives are altered because of traffic tickets.

“I’m upset that because we’re immigrants, they look down on us,” said Flores Gonzalez, who said she remains hopeful that her boyfriend will be released and that they’ll get married and get Franco’s immigration status straightened out. “We all have rights in this state and we’re going to fight for him.”

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Joe Lombardo have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can view a full list of donors here.

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