By: Valerie Johnston

In May 2017, video emerged of a Minneapolis Metro Transit officer asking pointed questions of a passenger, specifically whether he was in the United States legally. Minneapolis-based artist Ricardo Levins Morales, who shared the video on his Facebook wall, said that the officer under investigation was checking fares, but when he came to one passenger in particular, he broke with routine questions (and most say immigration law) by asking, “Are you here illegally?”

It was at this point that Morales felt he had to intervene and asked the office whether he was an immigration agent. The dubious reply from the officer was, “No, not necessarily.”

In the video, the passenger questioned never faces the camera, and the officer is never identified. However, the exchange between Morales and the officer was captured by Morales’ camera, and in it, he comes to the passenger’s defense in a unique way – suggesting to the transit officer that he should not act on behalf of an agency other than his own as this breaks immigration law.

After Morales asked if the transit officer was involved in immigration, and he answered in the negative, the exchange proceeded as follows:

Morales: “Then I would stay out of that, it’s very touchy legal territory. I would not act on behalf of another agency if you’re not legally empowered to do so.”

Officer: “Okay.”

That is the entire exchange, and yet it was enough for the Minneapolis Metro Transit to open a formal investigation into the matter. In a formal statement, the Metro Transit Police Chief, John Harrington, explained that it is the “main priority for our officers is to ensure that our riders and the communities we serve are safe…Our officers do this by enforcing our local and state statutes and have not been trained or empowered to act as Federal Immigration authorities.”

Experts weighing in on the issue have noted that enforcement officers behaving as the transit officer did run the risk of inadvertent discrimination, profiling, breaking immigration law and actually violating city ordinances by questioning the immigration status of individuals in the city. Though Homeland Security agents do maintain a presence on the city’s light rail trains, the transit officers have no right to enforce any immigration laws.