Myriam Parada, 26, won a lawsuit against Anoka County. Federal court rulings found that the manner in which Parada was detained by immigration enforcement was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Myriam Parada was driving her siblings home after her sister’s birthday party at Bunker Beach Water Park in the summer of 2017 when she was rear-ended in Coon Rapids.

To Parada’s shock, the incident led to her arrest, detainment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and a five-year legal battle with Anoka County to clear her name. 

“I felt frustrated and betrayed,” said Parada, who came to Minnesota with her family at 11 years old. “I saw myself as part of the community, and it was almost like a betrayal of someone who is supposed to protect you and the people you’re supposed to call when you’re in danger.”

The reporting officer let the driver who rear-ended Parada go but found that Parada, who is not a U.S. citizen, had been driving without a Minnesota driver’s license. She was booked in the Anoka County jail and had to disclose her birth country: Mexico.

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office held Parada, who was dressed in a swimsuit, tank top, and shorts, for six hours*. What happened in that time became the basis for Parada’s federal lawsuit against the county—which the now-26-year-old won on November 30.

While Parada was in their custody, the sheriff’s office alerted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about her because the department has an unwritten policy that requires officers to contact immigration authorities to report every foreign-born person jailed in Anoka County. Parada was then turned over to immigration officials for ten hours, and was relocated to the Sherburne County jail, which houses inmates being held on immigration issues. 

Federal courts found Anoka County’s practice unconstitutional and discriminatory in multiple rulings; the most recent ruling was issued November 30 by a federal appeals court.

A federal district judge ruled in 2020 that Anoka County’s policy of contacting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees a constitutional right to equal protection. A civil jury heard the case in 2021 to decide the merits of the federal lawsuit Parada filed against Anoka County and others. The jury found the county liable for false imprisonment for arresting Parada. 

The county appealed the case and lost in November. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the previous rulings and said in its opinion that the county’s policy was “a classic example of national-origin discrimination. On its face, it treats people differently depending on where they were born.”

Tierney Peters, a spokesperson for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, told Sahan Journal in an email statement that the county has changed its process and no longer informs immigration enforcement about people detained at the county jail. 

“This case has been unfortunate all the way around and we certainly understand the concerns felt by some members of our community,” Peters said in the statement. “The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to providing secure, safe, and humane confinement to individuals legally committed to the jail.”

Peters also said that the jail did not hold Parada unnecessarily long. In an interview with Sahan Journal Wednesday afternoon, Parada described a confusing and frightening experience in Anoka County’s custody.

“I waited several hours,” Parada said. “I just wanted to get out of there. It was just terrifying to be in jail.”

The jury in 2021 awarded Parada $30,000 in damages, more than a quarter million in attorney fees and costs, and $1 for the claim that her constitutional right was violated. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and other attorneys represented Parada for free in her lawsuit against Anoka County, the Anoka County sheriff, Coon Rapids Police Officer Nikolas Oman, the City of Coon Rapids, Coon Rapids Police Department, and other unnamed defendants.

Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“We feel the judge’s award of $200,000-plus in attorney’s fees for a plaintiff who was awarded one dollar in damages is not just, however we respect the ruling,” Peters said. 

Ian Bratlie, an attorney with the civil liberties union in Minnesota, said the organization has handled similar cases in Minnesota, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was alerted after a person who was undocumented or had other visa issues was arrested for driving without a driver’s license or not wearing a seatbelt. Bratlie has seen a significant decrease in the practice as a result of the group’s previous litigation.

“There’s actually a lot more cases now because of the ACLU’s work on this,” Bratlie said. “When I started with ACLU ten years ago, this was not an uncommon pattern. We don’t get those calls like we did a decade ago.”

Handcuffed, ankles shackled

Parada’s immigration attorney contacted Bratlie after she was arrested in 2017. At the time, Parada risked deportation since she had an expired visa but was living in the United States with her mother, stepfather, and siblings. The American Civil Liberties Union took on the case and filed a lawsuit against Anoka County and local law enforcement in early 2018. 

Parada said that on the day of her arrest, a Coon Rapids officer took her to the Anoka County jail and then handcuffed her. A female deputy patted her down and took down Parada’s information. Then the deputy took Parada into a holding cell. She said she consistently asked to make a phone call or to speak with a lawyer, but jail staff told her she had to wait.

“As I kept waiting in the cell, reality started setting in more,” Parada said. “I started feeling really scared that I would never see my family again and that I never got to say goodbye to my parents and my sister.”

A few hours later, Parada said, another officer told her that someone was waiting to speak with her on the phone. Parada thought it was her parents or a lawyer. When she picked up the phone, it was a strange man. 

The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as an Immigration Customs and Enforcement agent. Parada was struck with fear and said she felt pressured to answer the agent’s questions without a lawyer’s advice.

“He said that the process is going to go faster if I just answered his questions,” Parada said. “I was really afraid at that moment.”

A while later, an officer took Parada out of her jail cell and gestured for her to hand over a driving citation and a paper bag filled with her belongings. Parada realized she was handing it to two men who identified themselves as immigration agents. Male inmates at the county jail witnessed the exchange, she said, and hollered at her.

“They started shackling my ankles and putting handcuffs on my wrist,” Parada said of the immigration agents. “I was still wearing my swimsuit from the waterpark with a tank top and shorts. And I was standing in front of the male holding facility, so everybody started shouting stuff at me. It was awful and degrading.”

After her release, Parada learned that her parents and a lawyer were waiting in the Anoka County jail lobby the whole time she was in Anoka County’s custody, asking to make a phone call and fearing that she’d never see her family again. 

The agents took Parada to the Sherburne County jail, which holds immigration detainees. She spent the night and was released from the county jail on a $1,500 bond paid by her parents. She was in the custody of immigration enforcement at the Sherburne County jail for 10 hours.

Anoka County reported 4,300 people

During the 2021 trial, Anoka County admitted to referring more than 4,300 foreign-born people to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over a four-year period. More than half of those individuals turned out to be citizens. Bratlie said 43 of the 4,300 people reported were actually of interest to immigration authorities.

The most important ruling in the case happened in 2020, Bratlie said, when a federal district judge found that Anoka County’s policy was unconstitutional. The defendants requested an appeal after the case went to a jury trial in 2021.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Anoka County implemented a “scattershot approach to accomplishing its interest.” The fact that the policy was unwritten, didn’t help. 

“No one could answer that question: Why did they have that policy?” Bratlie said. “That was never answered by any of the defendants.”

Amanda Cefalu, another one of Parada’s attorneys, described the policy as an unspoken practice carried out behind closed doors. 

Parada’s attorneys said the county has a written policy that actually prohibited the conduct that led to her case: that policy says the county can’t discriminate based on national origin. Cefalu said Parada’s attorneys were able to prove that county workers were not following that policy, and were instead training booking officers to watch for people coming through the jail who were born outside of the United States.

Since the harrowing incident, Parada has been living in Ham Lake and working at a local Mexican restaurant as a manager, bartender, and server. 

Myriam Parada, an immigrant from Mexico, feared deportation when she was arrested in 2017. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“I feel a little bit more relief. It felt like it was always in the back of my head and a weight on my shoulders,” Parada said. “I don’t feel entirely safe, but the community is a little safer with that policy being done.”

Now that her legal fight has been resolved, Parada hopes to focus her time on earning her certification in user experience design and data analysis. She also hopes to spend more energy on her hobbies; she recently set up a pottery wheel in her garage.

She’s still waiting on her visa application, which will allow her to stay in the country if granted, but the federal system for processing such applications is known for being backlogged.

*Correction: A previous version of this story stated Myriam Parada was held at the Anoka County jail for four hours. Parada was held for six hours. The story summary has been updated to reflect that Parada was arrested for driving without a license, and that her lapsed visa was not a factor.

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Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...