Advocates: Lafayette wrongly jailed immigrant

A Lafayette man has been released after five days in jail for what an advocacy group says was a phony immigration hold placed by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Local officials lifted the hold Friday after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent told Lafayette authorities the agency had no reason to hold 37-year-old Mario Martinez, who entered the country legally with a since-expired permit.

Martinez was among at least nine Hispanic inmates in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center on Friday facing immigration holds with no charges other than operating a vehicle without a lawful presence in the United States, according to a Daily Advertiser review.

The Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment in Dallas is complaining to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security saying local police are acting illegally. The group also plans to ask the Mexican consulate to “put out a travel advisory for Mexican nationals to stay out of Lafayette,” center founder Ralph Isenberg said.

“These are strong-arming tactics that cannot be tolerated,” Isenberg said. “We get involved in immigration cases where we feel there is a violation of the U.S. Constitution or extreme family separation.”

Martinez and his wife, Hilaria Delgado, are on track to become U.S. citizens and are not facing deportation. Isenberg has been involved in a number of immigration cases, most recently in helping win the release of a man whose young daughter was critically ill.

Delgado watched through the rearview mirror of her family car while a deputy with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office handcuffed her husband and put him in a police car shortly after midnight Saturday.

Moments earlier, the deputy had stopped Martinez and Delgado as they returned home from a Christmas shopping trip to buy presents for their 9-year-old twins, Yahir and Alejandra, and their 16-year-old son, Mario Alberto Martinez.

The officer spoke through a loudspeaker and told Martinez to exit his car and walk backward toward the vehicle, Delgado said through a translator Friday. Martinez showed the officer copies of his Mexican driver’s license and his visa, but the deputy arrested Martinez and booked him with operating a vehicle without lawful presence in the Unites States.

Under Louisiana law, that crime can bring a sentence of up to $1,000 in fines and a year behind bars.

“I tried to ask the officers why they were taking my husband, but the officer just looked at me and walked away,” Delgado said.

According to the affidavit for Martinez’s arrest, Deputy Skylar Norbert saw Martinez driving in the 400 block of Herbert Road “without any tail lights on the vehicle,” prompting the traffic stop that led to Martinez being taken into police custody. Delgado, however, disputed the claim that the family vehicle’s tail lights were not properly working and said police stopped her and her husband without any legitimate reason.

“We’re hard-working individuals who have never had problems with police,” Delgado said. “This is a great injustice against the Hispanic community.”

By Christmas Eve, Martinez had been in a jail cell for about a day and was being held on a $10,000 bond.

The family eventually contacted the Isenberg Center, and by late Wednesday, two of the group’s representatives, J.J. Moreno and Jose Diaz, had arrived in Lafayette from Dallas to begin working with the family to help free Martinez from jail.

By Friday morning, Moreno and Diaz had contacted Robert Sheffield, a Lafayette-based immigration enforcement agent for ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and Enforcement and Removal Operations. Sheffield listened to the case’s details, and he signed paperwork saying the hold on Martinez should be lifted and confirming Martinez was in the country legally.