#TBT: Equality for All: American Must Live Up to Its Purpose

March 05, 2015

With a history of civil liberties stretching back almost a century, the ACLU has got plenty of amazing cases for #TBT. Every Thursday, we'll be sharing updates on cases pulled from our archives of work in Michigan and beyond.

Racial profiling is nothing new. For today's #ThrowbackThursday, we look back at the illegal arrest of Tiburcio Briceno. This arrest was not an innocent mistake made by an officer. Rather, just as in police abuse cases today, this is a predictable consequence of local and state police attempting to enforce complicated immigration laws through racial profiling and ethnic stereotyping.

Equality for All: American Must Live Up to Its Purpose

Becoming a U.S. citizen was one of my proudest moments. I'll never forget the way that I felt raising my right hand and taking the oath to this country. I felt that I was part of something bigger than myself; I felt that I was a part of a community and that I was finally equal to every other American.

That feeling was short-lived for me and my family. In February 2011, I confronted the harsh reality that many others in the Mexican-American community face — racial profiling. While driving a company van, I was stopped by a Michigan State Police officer. The officer said I had run a red light.

When the officer came to my car, I handed him my Michigan chauffeur's license, yet the officer was more interested in my immigration status. I repeatedly told him I was a citizen. He didn't care. He went to his car to look up my record and when he returned, he told me to get out of the car and that I was going to be deported. The officer had called Customs and Border Patrol. My car was impounded; I was handcuffed and driven to an empty parking lot to wait for CBP officers. 

I couldn't understand why this was happening to me. I felt worse than any criminal, because a criminal knows that when he's arrested it's because he's at fault. He knows he has to pay for something he did wrong. But I did nothing wrong. I'm not a criminal.

I pleaded with the officer to listen to me — to believe that I was telling the truth. "I am a citizen," I told him. But it didn't matter. I offered to show him my social security card. He refused to look at it. Finally CBP officers arrived. They looked at my record, confirmed that I was telling the truth and I was let go.

I never received a ticket for my traffic violation. I would have preferred that the officer just have issued me a ticket rather than interrogate me about my citizenship, call me a liar and threaten to kick my butt. The ticket would have been much easier to explain to my children than racial profiling.

I believe in the opportunities and dreams the U.S. represents. I believe in the promise of equality and justice for all. And as I thought more about this experience, I realized that I couldn't just ignore what happened because there are others just like me who are harassed, arrested and, at times, deported for no other reason than a police officer's perception of what a citizen should look like or sound like.

I came to the ACLU of Michigan for help and they sent a letter to Michigan State Police on my behalf asking for answers and an internal investigation. A few days later, I sat in the ACLU's office while the police's internal investigator asked me to tell my story. That was another proud day, because I knew that I had made a difference.

Although I still believe in the promise of equality, I know that I have to speak out to make sure it's a reality for me, my family and my community. No American should be made to feel like a criminal simply because of the color of their skin or language abilities.

By Tiburcio Briceno, ACLU of Michigan client

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