ANACORTES — A Skagit County man is suing the federal government after what started as a police stop for an apparent traffic infraction ended in a two-month stint in detention and the threat of deportation.
The lawsuit on behalf of Gustavo Vargas Ramirez, who is a Mexican national, was filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 27. Vargas is suing the government for the psychological, physical and professional damages incurred due to the incident, which began with a seemingly simple traffic violation in Anacortes on June 23, 2011.
“Mr. Vargas suffered harm, including but not limited to, loss of liberty, severe emotional distress, and invasion of privacy as a result of the false arrest to which he was subjected by USBP,” court documents stated.
Vargas is being represented by the Northwest Immigration Rights Project in Seattle, which handles cases dealing with immigration.
The Skagit Valley Herald was unable to speak to Vargas' attorneys to verify his U.S. immigration status. The documents do not indicate whether Vargas was in the country legally.
According to court documents, Anacortes police stopped Vargas for allegedly failing to signal as he made a left turn at the intersection of 11th Street and Q Avenue. Vargas offered his valid drivers license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance to the officer, who checked the documents.
When the officer noticed that Vargas’ Social Security number returned only zeros, the officer called the U.S. Border Patrol, the suit claims, attempting to verify his immigration status. Washington state does not require a Social Security number to obtain a driver's license.
Vargas then spoke with a Border Patrol agent via phone, who proceeded to question Vargas about his immigration status, including how long he had been in the country, documents stated. Vargas refused to answer questions without an attorney. The agent then advised the Anacortes officer to detain Vargas and wait while an agent drove to Anacortes to continue questioning him.
“Mr. Vargas gave no information to (arresting officer) Officer Leetz or to USBP that would constitute probable cause — or even reasonable suspicion — to believe that he had committed or was committing an offense against the United States or was in the United States unlawfully,” the document stated.
Vargas was held in a holding cell in Anacortes, then transferred to the Bellingham Border Patrol station where he was held overnight. In the morning, he was transferred to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement custody and taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
There he was held for 10 weeks while the deportation process was started, the lawsuit states. During this time, Border Patrol agents told Vargas he was ineligible to post bond, even though a background check showed no criminal history.
“USBP’s decision to arrest Mr. Vargas simply to investigate (emphasis kept) his alleged immigration status and the methods it employed to do so were grossly improper and unlawful,” the documents state.
During his detention, Vargas was unable to work and lost his job and was unable to gain employment for nine months. He also was unable to attend the Anacortes Arts Festival, which, as an artist, contributed to his income.
“The festival also offered Mr. Vargas with an opportunity to interact with youth interested in the arts as well as art lovers visiting the town,” the lawsuit states.
The deportation process for Vargas was closed on Feb. 6, 2013.
In addition, Vargas’ lawsuit claims Border Patrol agents lied in their report in order to justify Vargas' detention. For example, the lawsuit claims, the Border Patrol’s report states that an agent responded to the site of Vargas’ initial Anacortes stop, which Anacortes police refuted.