DENVER – A Gunnison man born in Colorado was picked up by immigration officers after a court appearance and illegally detained in immigration detention centers across the state for days, according to two newly-filed federal lawsuits.
Bernardo Medina, 22, is Hispanic and was born in Montrose in May 1994. He and his parents moved to Mexico before his first birthday, which is where he spent much of his early life. But Medina moved back to the Western Slope when he was 18, settling in Gunnison.
On Jan. 27, 2015, he went to the Gunnison County Court for a sentencing hearing on a DUI guilty plea. Afterward, he was approached by two men later identified as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. When they asked who he was, he produced his Colorado ID showing he was indeed Bernardo Medina.
What happened over the next three days still remains largely unclear, even to the Crested Butte lawyer who filed the lawsuits, who described Medina’s ordeal as a “nightmare” in court filings.
The attorney, Andy Richmond, filed the two suits in late January in U.S. District Court of Colorado. One of them names the GEO Group, which operates the Aurora ICE facility where Medina eventually ended up after being taken across the state to various facilities.
The other was filed against at least nine ICE agents who either detained Medina in the first place or took part in his continued detainment, despite what Richmond says were Medina’s continued attempts to tell them he was a U.S. citizen.
Both suits were discovered by Denver7 in a federal court database while doing research for another story in late February.
A confusing, 'complete nightmare'
Richmond says it’s still unclear if the agents at the courthouse that day came specifically looking for Medina or someone else. But he says his client “had no idea” what they wanted from him, an American citizen, and agreed to come with them to an immigration facility in Alamosa because he “wanted to be helpful,” Richmond says.
The lawsuit says that the agents searched Medina without his permission and without a warrant before he agreed to go to Alamosa, and that he only went after the agents agreed they would return him to Gunnison after questioning him.
That never happened.
Richmond says that ICE and the Department of Homeland Security tried to pin complaints on him while he was in the Alamosa facility that he was in the country illegally, alleging he was lying about his citizenship and that he was actually a Mexican citizen.
“You don’t look like you were born in Montrose,” one of the agents told him, according to one of the suits. Richmond says his client was profiled on the basis of his race and ethnicity, writing that the statement was “a clear allusion to [Medina’s] Hispanic appearance."
Eventually, according to the suit, Medina was told that he would have to pay a $12,000 ICE bond to be let out of custody because agents didn’t believe he was American.
That evening, ICE agents transported Medina to another immigration detention center in Colorado Springs, where he continued to tell agents he was American – pleas that fell on deaf ears, according to the suit.
“Not only was he insisting to every person who would listen that he was a U.S. citizen, his family was also on the outside trying to talk with any ICE official that would talk with them to show his birth certificate,” Richmond said.
And on Jan. 29 of that year, he was again transferred – this time to the ICE facility in Aurora operated by the GEO Group.
Medina continued his pleas to agents at that facility, as his family worked with immigration groups to try and secure his release. Richmond says agents at the Aurora facility continued to deny Medina’s claims about his American citizenship.
The suit says that finally on Jan. 30 of that year the guards at the Aurora facility “somehow figured out that tremendous error had been made in abducting an American citizen.”
As it turns out, the facility had finally received a copy of his birth certificate from an immigration rights advocate, according to Richmond.
It says that at least three guards started “aggressively questioning” Medina as to “why he hadn’t told them he was an American citizen,” then accused him of lying to them and threatening him with some sort of prosecution.
But nothing happened, and they released him from custody into Aurora without letting him call any friends or family, with a dead cell phone and less than $5 in his pocket, according to the suits.
Not knowing where he was and with limited resources, some Good Samaritans found him, fed him and allowed him to get in touch with his family members. His family was able to drive down to Aurora from Gunnison the next day and pick him up.
Claims in lawsuits allege constitutional violations, tort rules
The suit against the ICE agents claims they violated Medina’s Fourth Amendment rights to protect himself against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that they violated his Fifth Amendment rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of his race in the due process of law.
That suit asks for the judge to grant Medina awards for damages, witness fees, attorneys’ fees and other reasonable costs.
The suit against the Florida-based GEO Group accuses it of negligence for unlawfully holding an American citizen in immigration detention, of false imprisonment because it intended to restrict his free movement, of the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and of assault and battery because the company’s employees “made contact” that was “offensive” during Medina’s time at the facility.
That suit asks for the same relief as the other.
Richmond says that though no motion to consolidate the two suits has been made so far, they could eventually be put together so as to streamline them through the court process.
The GEO Group referred Denver7 to ICE for comment on the lawsuit, and an ICE spokesperson told Denver7 the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
But the same spokesperson, Carl Rusnok, told the Colorado Independent in April 2015 that Medina had told “local officers” in the months prior to his detainment that he was born in Mexico and had entered the U.S. illegally in 2013. Medina denied those claims to The Independent, and Rusnok’s comments were made before the lawsuit was filed.
“I would disagree with ICE’s version of events,” Richmond told Denver7 Tuesday. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an American citizen to tell immigration officials he was in the country illegally.”
Medina's criminal history shouldn't factor into case, attorney says
Medina does have a checkered criminal history in Colorado. He was in court the day he was picked up to be sentenced on a DUI charge, for which he served four days in jail and received a year of probation, according to court records.
But he was arrested for driving while ability impaired in September 2015, which he pleaded guilty to in February 2016. He also pleaded guilty to a criminal impersonation charge and a driving under restraint charge stemming from an April 2016 arrest.
And he was last August again charged with DUI and a handful of other traffic and misdemeanor charges, which are still pending in court.
But Richmond says those arrests and convictions shouldn’t factor into the case involving his alleged illegal detainment.
“They do not weigh into this case,” he said. “I’m not going to pretend anyone is an angel, but his past does not make a different to this case. Having a plea deal in some other criminal case shouldn’t make an American citizen the subject of an ICE investigation.”
Richmond says Medina’s psychological state was thrown into disarray during the ordeal and that he still feels the effects.
“There is still a little bit of fear there. He’s doing as well as can be expected, but he’s a little nervous,” Richmond said.
But he says Medina agreed to move forward with the lawsuits to bring awareness to the situation on the Western Slope. Richmond said Medina is scared for himself, but more scared “for what could happen in the community.”
Richmond says ICE agents will often show up to courthouses in search of people in the country illegally, and that some cases have been dropped because victims refuse to show up out of fear they will be detained and deported, as has been the case in Denver as well.
ICE and DHS officials have ramped up immigration enforcement efforts after executive orders signed by new President Donald Trump. But Medina's incident happened under President Obama, who also facilitated the deportation of thousands of people under his administration.
A scheduling conference has been set for both cases on May 10 in front of Magistrate Judge Gordon Gallagher in the Grand Junction magistrate branch of the U.S. District Court of Colorado.
The GEO Group was also named as a defendant in a lawsuit that received class status in late February alleging that more than 60,000 people housed at the Aurora ICE facility were illegally required to work for $1 a day.