Immigrant's Arrest In Kansas City, Caught On Video, Stirs Outrage And Legal Questions | KCUR

Immigrant's Arrest In Kansas City, Caught On Video, Stirs Outrage And Legal Questions

Jul 23, 2019

A Facebook video showing an immigration agent in Kansas City smashing the window of a car and dragging out an undocumented immigrant marks a newly aggressive approach by Immigration Customs and Enforcement.

It also has provoked community outrage, along with questions about whether the agency complied with the law and the extent to which the Kansas City Police Department is lending assistance to ICE operations.

In the video, streamed live on Monday, an ICE agent initially says the agency has a warrant for the arrest of the man, whom his girlfriend later identified to KCUR as Florencio Millan. But when the girlfriend, Cheyenne Hoyt, repeatedly asks the agent to show the warrant, he never displays it. Later, he says the agency has a “paperless warrant.”

A federal law does give ICE the power to interrogate, arrest or search without warrants, but only under limited circumstances, according to immigration lawyers.

“There has to be a circumstance where the officer has reason to believe the person they are arresting is in the United States without permission,” said Matthew Hoppock, a Kansas City immigration attorney.

In this case, however, ICE declined to name the individual they were seeking to arrest, “so that’s the first problem,” Hoppock said.

If the agents thought he was trying to escape, that too might have justified a warrantless arrest, Hoppock said. But the car was boxed in by the agents’ vehicles and Millan was sitting passively in the car.

Kansas City immigration attorney Rekha Sharma-Crawford said that while the statute does allow warrantless arrests, in this case the ICE agents initially said they had a warrant, triggering Millan’s right to see it.

“So if they have a warrant, the individual is well within their rights to say let me see the warrant,” Sharma-Crawford said. “Because obviously they have the right to know why they are being arrested.”

“What seems so boneheaded about this,” Hoppock said, “is that if they had a warrant, I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts he would’ve gotten out of the car … I mean, if you’re a law enforcement officer and you have a way to wrap a situation up without breaking somebody’s window and physically arrest them, it seems like the easiest way is just to show them the warrant.”

Kansas City immigration attorney Jessica Piedra said it was problematic that the ICE agent first said he had a warrant but then said he didn’t have to show it.

“So the problem that we see with ICE enforcement is that they are willing to say whatever it takes to effectuate an arrest, which is not what America is about,” Piedra said. “The rule of law is important to us, that our law enforcement follows the law, or none of us are safe, really, from chaos.”

About 21 minutes into the video, which Hoyt shot from the front passenger seat, an ICE agent smashes the driver's side window and drags Millan out. The agents and police push him face down onto the ground and handcuff him. Millan and Hoyt's 11-year-old son and 7-month-old disabled daughter, whom Hoyt says they were taking to a doctor's appointment, are in the back seat. The video had garnered some 61,000 views as of Tuesday evening.

Cheyenne Hoyt with her two children by Millan, Athena (in her lap) and Ezekiel.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3

Hoyt told KCUR that Millan worked as a chef at a local restaurant and was the family's sole breadwinner. She said he came to the U.S. 19 years ago when he was 13. 

The video also shows Kansas City police officers arriving on the scene approximately 13 minutes into the video. A spokesman for the police department, Jacob Becchina, told KCUR that ICE called the police for assistance because Millan had refused to emerge from his car.

“The KCPD officers attempted to help talk the male into coming out,” Becchina said in an email. “Again their mission was to preserve the peace and back up the ICE officers as requested.”

But the video shows one of the officers doing more than that. He is heard to tell the man, “Just roll the window down or I’m going to break it. That’s how it’s going to go … You can either get out of the car or we’re going to break the window … Either way it’s going our way, not yours.”

He repeats words to that effect several times. At another point he slams his fist or an object – it’s difficult to make out which in the video’s harsh glare  – into the passenger side window.

On Wednesday, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith responded to the growing furor over the KCPD’s role in Millan's arrest. On his blog, Smith said the KCPD does not do “proactive immigration enforcement. That’s not our role.”

However, Smith wrote, ICE agents asked for the department’s help “and officers responded as they would to any other call.”

“We regularly assist outside agencies working in our city who ask for back-up, from sheriff’s deputies to federal agents,” Smith wrote. “We don’t get to decide what calls we respond to. We just go. That’s our duty.”

Smith went on to say that KCPD personnel “made many attempts to de-escalate the situation.” He said of the officer who threatened to break the car window that “(y)ou can see in the video the very respectful way the primary sergeant at the scene spoke with the man in the car and with his family after the arrest.”

“His calming presence is part of the reason that KCPD officers respond to assist outside agencies,” Smith said.

According to Kansas City Police Department regulations dating from July 2014: “Only immigration officers have the authority to detain and arrest suspected undocumented/unauthorized foreign nationals for violations of the immigration laws.” The statement is listed in boldface type.

The regulations go on to say that “there will be coordination with ICE in identifying those undocumented/unauthorized foreign nationals involved in criminal activities. … Officers will also assist ICE in determining which situations and people warrant their involvement.”

But that’s followed by this instruction: “Officers shall not detain or arrest a person for being a suspected undocumented/unauthorized foreign national if no other charges exist.”

In this case, the only known charge against Millan was that after complying with a judge’s order to leave the U.S. in 2011, he illegally re-entered the country five days later. Millan is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who first came to the United States 19 years ago when he was 13 years old. 

KCPD spokesman Becchina, asked about the officer’s threat to break the car window, said the police responded to ICE’s request for assistance “(t)he same way we would do for any agency that is in our city participating in law enforcement activity.”

“Several officers had contact with the vehicle occupants, the attempt for all the officers was to get the male to safely exit the vehicle,” he said in an email.

In an emotional news conference Tuesday afternoon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church east of the Country Club Plaza, Hoyt recounted how immigration authorities boxed her car in between two jeeps as they were leaving their house to take their disabled daughter to her doctor’s appointment.

She said the family was trapped in their car for almost 30 minutes while the ICE agents and police tried to get her boyfriend to give himself up.

Following Hoyt’s remarks, immigration rights advocates, Latino activists and labor officials condemned the prominent role Kansas City Police played in the incident.

Alex Perez, of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance, said the video showed the direct involvement of police officers as they held Millan down on the ground while agents handcuffed him.

“These practices do not align with the espoused values of KCPD to protect and serve our community, especially the most vulnerable among us,” Perez said.

Rick Behrens, senior pastor at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, and a member of the board of Advocates for Immigration Rights and Reconciliation, demanded, to loud applause, that the police department disassociate itself from ICE.

“Our demand, for the sake of public safety and trust, is that the KCPD reiterate their supposed commitment to not collaborate, assist or offer support with ICE on arrest,” Behrens said.

In an email to KCUR, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said the issue was “about politics and the hate-filled ideologies of the current administration in Washington.”

“Kansas City welcomes everyone,” James wrote. “This is our city, and these are our neighbors and our friends. We look out for each other. We mourn together, and we celebrate together. And we must continue to stand together to demand equal justice under the law for all our residents, no matter where we come from or how we got here.”

James has no direct control of the Kansas City Police Department. As mayor, he is one of five members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, which sets policy for the department. 

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Kansas City, issued a statement Tuesday calling the video “nothing short of heartbreaking and gut-wrenching” and criticizing President Trump for his rhetoric on immigrants.

“It should make every American question where we’re headed as a nation and what kind of people we want to be,” Cleaver said. “This President has spent the entirety of his term demonizing immigrants and fearmongering his base into relinquishing the very values that have made our nation what it is today, and this incident is a direct result of that rhetoric.”

This story was updated on Wednesday to include the comments of Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith. 

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or by email at lauraz@kcur.org.