Jun 16, 2011 10:58 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - More than two dozen members of a Raleigh church are facing deportation after a traffic stop in Louisiana based on what their supporters say was illegal racial profiling rather than reasonable suspicion.
Members of the Buen Pastor church and their supporters are planning a vigil in Raleigh Thursday night, on the same day that the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is planning to file a federal civil rights complaint in the case.
The group, which is representing 22 of 24 accused illegal immigrant members of the church in Charlotte Immigration Court, contends that the proceedings should be thrown out because the April 2010 traffic stop that led to them was illegally conducted from the moment federal Customs and Border Protection agents pulled three vans over late at night outside Lake Charles.
"Where they were stopped is about 500 miles from the international border," said Elizabeth Simpson, the coalition lawyer taking the church members' case. "The agents couldn't possibly have had reasonable suspicion to pull them over lawfully."
The government says 24 members of the church are illegal immigrants. Simpson, the attorney for 22 of the 24, disputes that accusation without specifying the church members' immigration status, saying the government's claim hasn't been proved.
The two church members who aren't being represented by the group have other lawyers.
Simpson has filed a motion in immigration court to have the case thrown out. Among her arguments is that the federal agency's field manual requires three conditions for a lawful extended border search, including "reasonable certainty that the vehicle/person crossed the border," which Simpson contends is impossible given the distance of Lake Charles from the U.S. border with Mexico.
The federal government has opposed the motion, and the next court date is scheduled for Sept. 22. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in New Orleans declined to comment, saying the case is still an ongoing investigation.
The church members and their supporters contend they were pulled over simply because they're Latino, and that after being detained they were subjected to ridicule by federal agents. The group also says its members were denied their legal rights to make phone calls or contact lawyers during detention.
"They just said we were suspicious, that we were suspicious people," said Jeremias Villar, one of the church members contesting the deportation order.
The incident occurred early in the morning of April 15, 2010, when three vans and several private vehicles from Buen Pastor were returning to North Carolina from a religious ceremony in Houston. Buen Pastor, an Evangelical Protestant church, regards the "Santa Cena," or holy supper, as the most important religious event of the year.
In a complaint expected to be filed with the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Thursday, members of the church group say they were mocked and derided by customs agents, who ridiculed everything from their religious beliefs to their distinctive dress, which includes veils for women.
"They were also subject to insults based on their ethnicity, and the congregants perceived that they had been targeted based on Latino appearance, in part because the vans were traveling at a normal speed and there was no reason for them to be pulled over," reads a draft copy of the complaint obtained by The Associated Press.
Supporters of the church members are planning to hold a candlelight vigil on their behalf Thursday night at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, a congregation that's long been active in civil rights causes.
"We are a bit worried, like we've lost some hope, but we're with the church and praying together," Villar said.