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Amid social media unrest, Lower Merion police say they didn't help ICE arrest man

Jonatan Palacios, 27, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who is married to a U.S. citizen, was arrested outside of his Haverford apartment building on May 11. Residents questioned why Lower Merion police were there at the time.

Lillie Williams and Jonatan Palacios.
Lillie Williams and Jonatan Palacios.Read moreCourtesy of Lillie Williams

In response to misconceptions and some outrage on social media, Lower Merion police said Friday they were not involved in detaining a Honduran man outside his Haverford apartment last month.

Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had called local police to the scene after the man, Jonatan Palacios, locked himself in his car, the Lower Merion Police Department said in a statement Friday.  The police officers "did not become involved … other than being present while the [ICE] agents conducted their business," the department said, adding that police had no prior knowledge that ICE agents were coming to arrest Palacios.

Palacios, 27, an undocumented Honduran national, married a U.S. citizen in October 2014, and had filed paperwork seeking citizenship in October.  His petition was still pending, said his wife, Lillie Williams, 27.

In a phone interview Friday, Williams recounted the details of her husband's background and his arrest.  Palacios' attorney, Matthew Archambeault, confirmed her account.

Palacios had left his hometown of Comayagua at 16 and crossed the Mexico-U.S. border as an unaccompanied minor, fleeing a life of abuse and abandonment by his father and severe poverty. His family at times only had fried onions to eat.

When he crossed the border, she said, "he was apprehended immediately." As an unaccompanied minor, he was released to his cousin, a U.S. citizen who lived in Radnor. But Palacios later missed a court date and a Philadelphia immigration judge in 2008 issued an order for his deportation.

Most recently, Williams said, her husband was attending Delaware County Community College and was working as a cook at a Main Line cafe, which Williams declined to name because she didn't want to get the owner in trouble.

About 6 a.m. on May 11, Williams said, she was sleeping in their apartment near the Haverford Train Station when Palacios, who was about to drive to work, called her. "Come here, downstairs, it's immigration," he said. She looked out their apartment window and saw two ICE agents, a man and a woman, standing outside their car. The car was blocked in by the agents' unmarked cars.

Williams went to the window and snapped a photo, then ran outside.

When she asked to see a warrant, the ICE agents showed her the 2008 deportation order signed by Philadelphia Immigration Judge Rosalind K. Malloy.

Meanwhile, Palacios wouldn't get out of the locked car. Williams said she went back into their apartment for about an hour, calling immigration attorneys and immigrant-rights groups to seek help. Since it was so early in the morning, she was only able to reach a friend of her husband's, another immigration attorney who told her they had no option but to comply.

She then returned outside, where the ICE agents said they were going to call Lower Merion police to break open one of the car's windows since her husband wouldn't get out.

"They were using Lower Merion police as a threat tactic," she said. "It was a very traumatic time for me. … They were putting a lot of resources into detaining someone who was trying to adjust his status and who had no criminal record, which is kind of bizarre."

When the two Lower Merion police officers showed up, one looked into a car window, but they didn't do anything else, Williams said.

After Williams told Palacios that she didn't think they had any other choice, he voluntarily came out of the car, she said. "We were under a lot of pressure and duress," she said.

The ICE agents handcuffed him and took him away in one of their cars, Williams said.

Palacios is currently being held at the York County Prison, Williams said. Williams and Archambeault said they are trying to get him a bond hearing, and have filed an asylum application. Judge Malloy has set an August hearing in his reopened deportation case.

Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman, confirmed Friday that the ICE agents had the judge's 2008 deportation order for Palacios, who was considered an ICE fugitive, when they went to arrest him. "ICE officers are lawfully authorized to make administrative arrests for immigration violations," Walls said by email. "These arrests can be made without a judicially issued warrant."

Walls said Palacios will remain in ICE custody pending the outcome of his immigration case.

After her husband was arrested, Williams reached out to media outlets and shared their story online. She set up a fundraising website, asking for help to get her husband back home and to spread the word about his plight. A vigil has been set up for 5:15 p.m. Thursday at the Haverford Train Station.

A Facebook group called Hate Has No Home Here – Lower Merion & Narberth took up their cause, writing in part that "ICE, apparently with the help of the LMPD, arrested a Honduran man … because he does not have his 'papers.' "

Thomas Walsh, a Lower Merion Township spokesman, said Friday that residents began raising questions to the township's board of commissioners and to police about what occurred. Friday's statement aimed to clarify the police department's role, said Walsh, who noted that some of what has been written on social media is "not exactly accurate."

He said the ICE agents showed officers the paperwork for Palacios' arrest, and that the township had no authority over ICE's action.  The officers were "letting the proper law enforcement agency do what they were supposed to do," Walsh said.

Palacios' arrest is the first interaction Lower Merion police have had with ICE in the last two years, Walsh said.  And even before that, it was rare, he said.