If this firefighter lived in Seattle, his traffic stop wouldn't have ended in ICE custody | KUOW News and Information

If this firefighter lived in Seattle, his traffic stop wouldn't have ended in ICE custody

Mar 29, 2018

The small outpost of Tonasket sits near the northern border of Washington state, surrounded by forests and farmland. It's probably not where you want to be if you're an immigrant at risk of deportation.

Just ask 20-year-old Noe Vasquez.


For some immigrants, where you live can be a game changer. Vasquez, a young firefighter in Tonasket, might have a different story to tell if he lived in Seattle, hundreds of miles away, where sanctuary policies offer some protection against deportation.

For Vasquez, it started with a traffic ticket. Next came nearly a month at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

“I’ve known Noe probably a little bit over two years — he’s dating my daughter,” said Ruby Amezquita, shifting her feet to stay warm on a cold February day outside the Tacoma facility. “He's a really sweet, young boy. I mean, he's amazing. It's going to make me cry.”

Daughter Brenda wrapped an arm around her mom’s shoulder. Brenda and her parents made the trip from Tonasket on the day of Vasquez’s bond hearing, hoping he’d be released.

“Remember your first date that you guys went on?” Ruby asked her daughter. “They went to a rodeo, and they took her little sister.”

“We were just friends then,” Brenda said.  “That's when it started.”

Ruby and Brenda Amezquita outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Immigration authorities detained Brenda's boyfriend, Noe Vasquez, after his DACA expired.
Credit KUOW/Liz Jones

As the afternoon light faded, several families waited near the gate for detainees who posted bond and who will fight their immigration cases on the outside. Vasquez walked out among them.

A young girl in a pink jacket and polka-dotted rain boots bolted past to jump in her dad’s arms, while Vasquez spotted Brenda on the sidewalk.

“Hey guys, thanks for coming,” Vasquez said, as Brenda buried her head in his chest.

“Your mom’s been calling,” Ruby chimed in.

Noe Vasquez hugs his girlfriend, Brenda, after his release from the Northwest Detention Center in February.
Credit KUOW/Liz Jones

Vasquez looked back at the razor-wire fence, baffled  that his case could end with deportation.

“Once they told me I’d be going to Tacoma, that’s when everything started going into my mind —  all my loved ones,” he said. “They probably had it harder than me, because I was the one who was gone.”

He said he hates to think of the worry he caused his mom and younger sisters in Tonasket.

“I never thought it would escalate to this much,” he said. “Lesson learned.”

A missing signature

That lesson started with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program for undocumented immigrants who came here as children, have a clean record and meet other requirements. DACA status gave Vasquez permission to live and work in the U.S.

Before his arrest, Vasquez worked for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources fighting wildfires in the Okanogan Valley. It’s a job he loved, and managers said he was  a vital part of the crew — especially since he’s bilingual.

But you have to renew DACA paperwork every two years. Last time around, Vasquez forgot a signature. He lost his DACA status — and his job as a firefighter.

Washington state firefighter Noe Vasquez, right, in the Okanogan Valley.
Credit courtesy Noe Vasquez

That set the stage for what came next, when Vasquez was pulled over for a traffic stop.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers reviewed this case — and shared some of his views on immigration in this rural, farm community.

“You want my honest opinion?" Rogers said. “It’s gotten so damn political, it drives me nuts.”

“Maybe we're in a different world over here," he said. "I mean, I'm not into all this sanctuary stuff. There’s a lot of Hispanics that live here. We know a lot are illegal. We know that. Nobody cares.”

Rogers said his officers don’t ask about immigration status. Latinos make up nearly 20 percent of the county’s population and an integral part of the local economy.

“You hate to say it, but they do a lot of work for us,” Rogers said. “A lot of them are good people, but you cross that line and get in trouble ... what happens, happens.”

Why location matters

Three simple questions about Vasquez’s case show why where you live matters when it comes to deportation.

Question one: Why was he arrested?

Vasquez was driving with a suspended license due to an unpaid traffic ticket. In Okanogan, this offense can lead to a citation or an arrest — it’s up to the officer.

Compare that to King County, where the prosecutor’s office will no longer charge solely for this minor offense, and officers are encouraged to only give tickets.

Sheriff Rogers is sympathetic.

“I know it sucks,” he said. “You hate to see some of these poor folks get deported. I know it disrupts lives. It's just when you cross that line and get in trouble, I don't have a choice. You're going to jail." 

Question two: How do local police cooperate with federal immigration authorities?

“Basically, we cooperate with all of them,” Rogers said.

The Okanogan jail is 40 miles from the Canadian border, so the U.S. Border Patrol handles a good amount of immigration enforcement as a proxy for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

Less than three hours after Vasquez was booked into jail, Border Patrol put a hold on him. When a fellow firefighter came to pay his $500 bail, it was already too late. 

How closely local police work with ICE varies by county, and easy access can be a factor.

Frank Rogers, Okanogan County Sheriff.
Credit courtesy Okanogan Sheriff Department

“As for the jail, Border Patrol goes down there probably two, three times a week,” Rogers said. “They’re welcome to come down there as much as they want.”

Border Patrol spokesman Jason Givens confirmed that his agency presented the jail with a probable cause statement to justify the hold "because the individual’s DACA status had expired, which made him illegally present in the United States."

It’s different in King County, where the jail will only hold someone for ICE with a criminal warrant signed by a judge.

Captain Troy Bacon, spokesman for King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said jail staff members do not facilitate immigration enforcement, and it’s rare for ICE to visit.

Question 3: What information do county jails collect?

At the Okanogan jail, they asked Vasquez where he was born. He said Mexico. According to Rogers, any non-U.S. response triggers the jail to call Border Patrol.

“The place of birth is like a neon flashing light that would be this beacon flashing above my name,” said Annie Benson, senior directing attorney with the Washington Defender Association.

Benson recently worked with King County officials to pass an ordinance that, among other things, stops jail employees from asking this question. The concern is that ICE could use birthplace data on the jail roster to profile foreign-born individuals for questioning.

Benson said the aim is to protect immigrants, like Vasquez, who may never be charged with a crime — and also to keep this information out of ICE’s hands.

“This is not how we want our resources —  federal, state or local — to be used, to break up families and to deport people who are contributing members of our community,” Benson said.

Families reunite outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Credit KUOW/Liz Jones

Benson is now helping to create custom versions of the policy for smaller cities and counties.

On the day Vasquez left detention, he blamed  himself for the ordeal. As the oldest child and a firefighter, he’s used to offering help, not taking it.

“Throughout the whole situation, it was just frustrating because I couldn't do anything from the inside,” he said. “Everybody else had to help me from the outside. That’s the most frustrating part of everything.”

Vasquez recently tried again to renew his DACA status — this time with an attorney double checking the forms. It came back approved, and he’s eligible to work again.

In April, Vasquez will ask an immigration judge to drop his case. Then he wants to turn his  attention to another battle: wildfire season.