When A Transit Officer Questioned Someone's Immigration Status, Another Passenger Stepped in

"Are you here illegally?"

Cellphone video appearing to show a police officer questioning a man's immigration status on public transportation in Minneapolis has locals speaking out.

According to The Washington Post, the incident in question was caught on camera on May 14 by a man named Ricardo Levins Morales and is now under internal investigation. Morales says two Metro transit police officers boarded the train and asked passengers for proof they had paid the train fare. When one man "didn't have a satisfactory answer" to the query, Morales tells the The Star Tribune that he instinctively began recording the interaction "because these are the kinds of situations that can escalate quickly."

In the exchange, you can clearly hear the officer, who is a part-time employee, ask the man if he has a state ID. Before the man can verbally reply, the officer follows up with, "Are you here illegally?"

That's when Morales jumped in and, while still recording the confrontation, questioned if the transit officers are authorized to act as immigration police.


When the officer admitted he was "not necessarily" permitted to act as immigration police, Morales drove his point home. "I would stay out of that, it's very touchy legal territory," he can be heard saying. "I would not act on behalf of another agency if you're not legally empowered to do so."

The officer then backed off (seemingly thanks to Morales's intervention) but the matter is far from resolved. Since Morales shared the brief video on May 19, it has been viewed 1.3 million times and liked by 3.7 million users. 

In a Facebook post shared last Friday, Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said, "This afternoon, community members and partners alerted me to a situation in which one of my part time officers was witnessed asking an individual whether he was in the state illegally. I immediately called for an Internal Affairs investigation to gather the details about this incident and to report back to me as quickly as possible."

He added, "It is not the practice of the Metro Transit police to inquire about the immigration status of our riders."

As The Washington Post points out, when Minneapolis declared itself a sanctuary city in 2003, a city ordinance prohibited city employees (including police) from inquiring about a person's immigration unless it's directly relevant to a crime under investigation.

"The main priority for our officers is to ensure that our riders and the communities we serve are safe. Our officers do this by enforcing our local and state statutes and have not been trained or empowered to act as Federal Immigration authorities," Harrington's statement concluded.

Though laws may vary from state to state, the American Civil Liberties Union outlines what you should do (and what you have a legal right to do) if you are stopped by police, immigration agents, or the FBI. According to the organization, you have the right to remain silent, and you have the right to refuse to consent to a search of yourself, your car or your home.

The ACLU also notes that, regardless of your immigration or citizenship status, you have constitutional rights.

As evidenced by the incident in Minneapolis, the single most critical thing you can do as a bystander or as someone being questioned is to know your rights. As soon as Mr. Morales intervened and questioned the officer's authority, the officer backed off, but had Morales not spoken up, the situation could have transpired very differently.

If you suspect your rights have been violated via police misconduct or if you see someone else's rights being abridged, you can file a written complaint with the agency's internal affairs division or civilian complaint board and contact the ACLU for further assistance.

Morales, for one, is thankful for the quick thinking that lead him to turn on his cellphone camera, and he's pleased his video is being so widely disseminated. "That was my hope," he told The Star Tribune. "I wanted to make sure it was visible to people who would put pressure on Metro Transit."

Cover image via Shutterstock / Sam Wagner.

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