On July 4, officer Rebecca Teems knocked on a car window at a state park in Dania Beach, Florida and asked the driver for his ID. She asked Carlos Rueda, who is Colombian, to park the vehicle at the entrance.
A couple of weeks later, on July 21, the same agent touched the window of another car and told the Venezuelan driver, Javier Herrera, the same thing.
Neither Rueda or Herrera had valid U.S. visas. Nor did their companions, Viviana and Barbara, who joined them on the trip to the Florida park known for its beach, pier and picnic area.
Teems, who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), called in both cases to immigration officials. The two couples waited about an hour inside their cars until the Border Patrol arrived and detained them.
They were transferred to the same Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) center in Florida. Now they face deportation after more than 15 years living in the United States.
"We are seeing many cases in which park officials work very closely with immigration officials," immigration lawyer Álex Gálvez told Univision News. "Every summer you hear of cases, it's a place where immigrants need to have everything in order."
The lawyer emphasized that undocumented immigrants should avoid exposure in national and state parks, especially if they have issues such as expired license plates, or if they go camping at night, drink alcohol outdoors where it is prohibited, or if they go hunting.
But, why is a Florida environmental agency official checking the immigration status of park visitors? How common is it for them to call the immigration authorities?
The FWC says Teems was simply complying with Florida law. The agency explained that one of her jobs is to check the license plates of the cars that enter the park.
"If, during a lawful inspection or interaction with an FWC officer, an individual cannot provide verifiable documentation as to their identity, then FWC officers may check with any relevant or applicable state or federal agency to determine the identity of the subject.If during an inspection or legal interaction, an individual cannot prove verifiable documentation of their identity, the FWC agent may seek to verify it with a state or federal agency," said the agency's spokesman, Rob Klepper.
He also explained that, if the immigration authorities request to keep that person detained, the state agent will fulfill the request until officers arrive.
That’s how it transpired in both cases with Rueda and Herrera. Rueda showed Teems his international driving license and car insurance, but neither of those documents are proof that he was legally in the United States.
FWC said that a records check found that Rueda’s Colombian license had expired more than eight years ago and he was "criminally cited for driving violations two times prior to this incident."
Rueda and Herrera entered the country legally but admit they overstayed their visas.
"She was pretty racist. She didn’t let me speak," Rueda said, describing how he was treated by Teems in a phone interview from the Broward Transitional Center, an ICE detention facility where he is detained. Rueda suspects the officer noticed he was Latino and that was why she picked out his car from several dozen vehicles that were seeking entry to the park that day to celebrate the July 4 holiday.
The case of Rueda and his partner Viviana Fernández came to the attention of Univision via the Documenting Hate project, a media initiative led by ProPublica whereby users can report suspected incidents of hate.
Both are still detained by ICE and are only permitted to see each other an hour each day. "They sit us down on a bench, we can kiss each other as we go in and as we leave," explained Carlos.
The other couple, Venezuelans Javier Herrera and Bárbara Machado, was also questioned by agent Teems. Two of their three children were with them and recorded images while they waited in the car, in which Teems and a Border Patrol agent can be observed.
They have been in the United States since 2000. Two of their children are U.S. citizens and the other is a beneficiary of the DACA program for children of undocumented immigrants.
Herrera also has several citations for driving with an expired license plate, according to ICE. He also remians detained, while Machado was released last week.
Univision contacted the Border Patrol three times and was told the cases were still being verified. No further details were provided.
If you have experienced a hate or bias incident, you can report it to Documenting Hate.