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Citizen settles lawsuit over wrongful arrest

An out-of-court settlement has been reached in a case defenders say highlights how hyper-vigilant border enforcement can violate people’s civil liberties.

Gerardo Vazquez-Mentado, an Oswego county resident, store owner and naturalized U.S. citizen sued the federal government after he was wrongfully arrested and detained by border patrol agents.

“According to Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of government is to enable the people to live in safety and happiness,” said Peter Dellinger, a senior attorney at the Empire Justice Center. “This includes citizens such as Mr. Vazquez-Mentado.”

Vazquez-Mentado was represented by the Empire Justice Center, Legal Aid Society of Rochester and the Worker Justice Center which announced the settlement Tuesday.

Vazquez-Mentado was with his family, all U.S. citizens, on his way to work, when he was arrested in September 2009 by two border patrol agents in Oswego. He showed his New York driver’s license and he and his wife repeatedly insisted he was a U.S. citizen.

The arresting agents, who asserted he was illegally in the U.S., searched and handcuffed him, and took him to the local border patrol station where he continued to insist he was a U.S. citizen, also presenting an Oswego County pistol permit.

He was released only after his wife returned to the station with his U.S. passport and Certificate of Naturalization, which showed that he became a U.S. citizen in 1998.

The agents did not have an arrest warrant for Vazquez-Mentado, nor did they offer him an apology upon his release.

“I was treated like a criminal by the border patrol,” Vazquez-Mentado said. “I had never had any trouble with the law and out of nowhere, they arrested me in front of my family. It caused all of us a lot of pain and embarrassment.”

In May 2012, he brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York against the four arresting agents and the chief border patrol agent of the Buffalo sector. While the suit was pending, a report by Families for Freedom and New York University Law School revealed the Buffalo Border Patrol sector had a bonus policy which apparently rewarded agents based on the number of arrests they made.

The settlement of the lawsuit did not resolve the issue of whether the policy played a role in Vazquez-Mentado’s arrest. Additionally, the border patrol did not admit any wrongdoing.
Details of the settlement were not included in the release.

Vazquez-Mentado was represented by Walter H. Ruehle, an immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Society; David O. Irving, Worker Justice Center; and Peter O’Brian Dellinger, Empire Justice Center.

“Immigrants are bearing the brunt of today’s harsh border policies, with the U.S. government allowing arrests without warrants and other violations of civil liberties,” said Irving.

“This case should concern all of us, since U.S. citizens are not required by law to carry proof of their citizenship,” added Ruehle. “Hopefully, this case sends a message to local border patrol agents to investigate first, and not arrest first, persons who present bona fide claims of U.S. citizenship.”