SODUS — An outreach worker for Catholic Charities of Wayne County was handcuffed on the streets of Sodus April 16 by U.S. Border Patrol agents after being called to the scene to translate for a woman in need.
Agents physically searched Peter Mares — who also manages La Casa, a program that offers temporary housing to local residents — for identification when he questioned why they needed it. He was handcuffed by agents during the April 16 incident on Maple Avenue in the town.
"It’s just escalating," Mares said in regard to the tactics officers are taking with immigrants in the area. "It’s why I want the word out (about this incident)."
Gary Pudup, director of the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said an American citizen — like Mares, a naturalized native of Mexico — does not have to produce identification simply because law enforcement officers request it. Yet Pudup noted that New York’s criminal procedural law does state that an officer can ask for identification if there is suspicion of any criminal behavior.
"The whole idea that an American citizen has to produce identification or be arrested, there’s no basis for that in the law," Pudup said.
The Border Patrol contends, however, that Mares’ actions — such as keeping his hands in his pockets and "inserting himself into the situation" involving the woman for whom he was translating — were the sole reason that agents handcuffed him.
"It was his actions that led him to being cuffed, frisked … and patted down," said Greg Barbagallo, assistant chief patrol agent for the Buffalo sector of Border Patrol, which includes Wayne County. "We don’t handcuff someone just because they don’t talk to us or whatever. … It was solely up to him to stop doing what he was doing and he refused."
According to a written statement Mares submitted to El Mensajero Católico, the incident began when Mares drove to La Casa to help a Mexican woman who had run from Sodus police after being questioned about driving an unregistered car.
Mares said he tried to help defuse the situation and explained to the Sodus police officer that the woman was under extreme stress from having traveled downstate for an immigration hearing. He said he urged her to cooperate with Sodus police and that the officer agreed to not detain her as long as she stayed to answer questions from him and the border-patrol agents also at the scene.
Once the woman’s situation with Sodus police was resolved, the agents began asking Mares questions. Mares said he gave his name to one agent, shook the man’s hand and explained the woman’s situation. When the officer asked Mares where he was born, the Catholic Charities worker said he asked why he was being questioned about that. Mares told El Mensajero that he explained to the agent that he was born in Mexico but had become a U.S. citizen.
A second agent, a woman, then asked him for identification. When Mares replied that he had already answered the first officer’s questions and again asked why he needed to provide identification, the second officer handcuffed Mares and sat him down on the ground.
Agents did this, Barbagallo said, because "they were concerned about their safety and the safety of the people they were interviewing."
A third agent, whom Mares described as a supervisor, then became involved, and Mares said he pointed out the female agent’s aggressive behavior.
The female agent also spoke with Felix Fantauzzi, who had driven to the scene with Mares to help the woman. Fantauzzi, who is from Puerto Rico, told El Mensajero on May 6 that the agent demanded to see his immigration papers. She repeatedly insisted that he was from Cuba, and he responded that he is a citizen and doesn’t need papers. When she relented, Fantauzzi was ordered to leave the scene.
But when Fantauzzi heard the female agent tell Mares that she was going to arrest him for failing to show his identification, he jumped in to defend Mares. Fantauzzi said he and a neighbor who also came onto the scene repeatedly told the officer that Mares was a citizen.
"I told her, ‘Why are you treating him this way?’" as they threw him to the ground, Fantauzzi said. "He (Mares) is simply doing his job to help people."
Barbagallo said the agents dismissed Mares after discussing the potential for charges.
Pudup said Rochester residents need to become more aware that incidents like the one involving Mares have been happening repeatedly just outside the metro area.
"You don’t have to go to Arizona to find cases of racial profiling," Pudup said in reference to that state’s recent passage of a bill that makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry immigration documents and gives police the power to detain anyone suspected of being in this country illegally.
"I think what we’re finding out is that this has happened … more than the general public is aware of," Pudup added.
Fantauzzi said he had seen the mistreatment of undocumented workers firsthand even before the Mares incident. He said he has seen officers throw people to the ground and place a foot on their backs.
Not having papers should not give officers the right to treat anyone like that, he said.
"They treat (Mexicans) in a manner … that is very, very, very bad," Fantauzzi remarked. "As if they’re not even human beings."