Hickory immigration lawyer explains constitutional rights; Lenoir defense attorney says his office prepared to help with Spanish-speaking staff
By Michael M. Barrick
LENOIR, N.C. – On March 23, while residents of New York were angrily protesting the detention of an immigrant family by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents, about three dozen Latinos and their allies gathered here to learn about their constitutional rights.
The meeting, which was held at a local venue, was organized by the Caldwell County Democratic Party.
Carla Vestal with Hickory-based Vestal Immigration Law spoke for nearly two hours and provided attendees with handouts regarding their rights in the work place, public places, and their homes. She also provided an Emergency Planning Guide for immigrant families. Her law firm is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Lenoir attorney Thomas Whisnant was there also, fielding a few questions and helping distinguish between federal and local law, as well as immigration and criminal law. He also told those in attendance that he has Spanish-speaking staff.
Vestal opened by saying, “I’m here because a lot of people don’t know their rights.” She cautioned however, “I’m not providing legal advice, just information.”
Do not allow people to call you illegal aliens. It is offensive. It is degrading. And, it is not a legal term. Tell them that is not who you are!” – Carla Vestal
She first handed out an information sheet titled, “Know Your Rights: If ICE Comes to Your Work Place.” It begins, “All people living in the United States, including undocumented immigrants, have certain U.S. Constitutional rights. If immigration officers (ICE) come to your work place, they must have a valid search warrant or the consent of your employer to enter non-public areas.” The paper provides details on the following three points: Do not panic and do not run away; you have the right to remain silent; and, you have the right to speak to a lawyer.
Speaking passionately, she said, “Do not allow people to call you illegal aliens. It is offensive. It is degrading. And, it is not a legal term. Tell them that is not who you are!”
She then parked on the importance of invoking their rights, starting with the right to remain silent. “The odd thing about being silent is you have to say it, and you have to say it in English. So practice, ‘I want to be silent!’ If you don’t say it in English, the officer can claim he didn’t understand you.”
She added, “If told to move into a group, you don’t have to.” Vestal added, “You can refuse to show documents if it shows from what country you came.”
We shouldn’t live in a world where we have to think about these things.” – Carla Vestal
Moving on, she said the next phrase they needed to know – and use – in English is, “I want a lawyer.” She explained, “If you say it in Spanish, again, the officer can say he didn’t understand.” She continued, “If given papers, don’t sign them until you see an attorney.”
Her next handout was titled, “Know Your Rights: If ICE Stops You in Public.” Vestal observed, “This is happening frequently since January.” She shared, “It is important that you can recognize the difference between ICE, municipal and county officers. You can tell by the uniforms and badges.” She continued, “Now, since January, we have been seeing ICE in plain clothes. But they have to put on a vest if they exit their car.” She also said that they are required to show their badges upon request.
The highlights of the handout on being stopped in public include, again, the right to remain silent and the right to speak to a lawyer. It also notes, “You may refuse a search.” It explains, “If you are stopped for questioning but are not arrested, you do not have to consent to a search of yourself or you belongings, but an officer may ‘pat down’ your clothes if she or she suspects you have a weapon.”
Whisnant added that when confronted with law enforcement at any level to be respectful, calm, cooperative without surrendering your rights, and to be non-threatening.
Vestal continued her presentation by talking about the biggest threat to immigrants – home visits. She said, “ICE is coming to peoples’ homes more than anything else. We are getting reports from across the country that this is happening frequently.” Still, she said, “When you are at home, you have more constitutional rights than in public or work.”
I want you to know there are people in this community that care for you. You are not alone.” – Carla Vestal
So, she provided another handout, “Know Your Rights: If ICE Visits Your Home.” In addition to having the right to remain silent and the right to speak to a lawyer, Vestal noted, “You do not have to open your door.” She explained, “You do not have to open the door or let the officers into your home unless they have a valid search warrant signed by a judge.”
Emphasizing the point, she continued, “Do not open your door! There is no law that requires that you open your door.” As she and Whisnant both pointed out, the only exceptions – apart from a valid warrant – are if officials believe there is an emergency in the household or evidence is being destroyed.
Vestal repeated, “ICE can’t open doors. Do not open your door!”
She went into details as to what information should be on a search warrant. She said there may be times when a search warrant is valid. “These situations are emotional and scary. But you have to take a deep breath and think. Don’t act on emotions. Comply, watch closely, document what happens, and write down the names of the officers.”
She concluded her presentation by handing out an Emergency Planning Guide. The document, which is four pages long, is just a start said Vestal. “This is not the only thing you should rely on. It’s a start, but get an immigration attorney. At least get a card from one so you know where one is located.”
As she neared her conclusion, a look around the room left one wondering if all of the information she provided made those there more hopeful or less so. Perhaps sensing that, she offered, “I want you to know there are people in this community that care for you. You are not alone.”
Among the many questions she was asked, several had to do with protecting children. Noting that many families are being torn apart since the Trump administration’s ramping up of ICE raids, she said, “You understand the value of family. We don’t have that much in American culture anymore.”
Vestal warned those in attendance that the Emergency Plan was essential, as detention centers are being located in remote places, accessing information about where a loved one is very difficult, and there are no attorneys present.
She offered, “We shouldn’t live in a world where we have to think about these things.” Noting that we do, however, she concluded, “If anything happens, the first person to call is an attorney, even before family members. I need to get started on my job. Things move very quickly.”
To learn more about Vestal Immigration Law, call (828) 855-3888 or visit www.vestalimmigration.com.
To learn more about the Law Offices of Thomas Whisnant, call (828) 754-0800 or visit www.lawofficelenoir.com.
© The Lenoir Voice, 2017.
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