Unsafe Sanctuaries? Undocumented Immigrants Often Swept Up in ICE's California Stings

Robin Urevich, Capital & Main

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political and social issues.

California’s local sanctuary policies vary from city to city, but most seek to prevent undocumented immigrants from being arrested and deported, as well as to ensure that these immigrants feel safe reporting crimes, acting as witnesses and testifying in court. To do that, most policies attempt to create a firewall between local law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities by barring police officers from asking about immigration status or enforcing federal immigration law.

Just under the public radar, however, police in many sanctuary cities work closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on operations targeting drugs, gangs and human trafficking. Many law enforcement agencies argue the federal-local collaborations are essential. But at times the lines between criminal investigations and immigration enforcement have blurred during these joint operations, spreading panic in immigrant communities and outrage among city officials.

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation. Reuters

For example, earlier this year ICE agents helped local police in Santa Cruz arrest 10 alleged members of the transnational MS-13 gang. ICE spokesman James Schwab was unapologetic when the raid also netted about 10 more undocumented local residents who weren’t targets of the criminal investigation.

“It’s ICE’s authority,” Schwab told Capital & Main. “If we’re going to do a targeted operation, we’re going to be checking the other people in the targeted location.”

Schwab contended that Santa Cruz officials knew all along that immigration arrests would be part of the operation. But in an interview, Deputy Police Chief Dan Flippo vehemently disagreed. He said he had ICE agents’ agreement that immigration enforcement wouldn’t be a part of the operation. “Where I’ve felt disgust is [that] I’ve never had another law enforcement agency look me in the eye and tell me something was not happening when it was. That’s very disconcerting,” Flippo said.

ICE’s investigative branch, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), is the second-largest investigative organization in the federal government. ICE became part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) two years after 9/11, and brought immigration and customs enforcement together. This has created a law enforcement agency that includes both deportation officers who arrest undocumented immigrants, and HSI, which in addition to targeting gangs and drugs, also focuses on money laundering, Internet crime, human rights violations and international art and antiquities theft.

On the agency’s website, ICE touts its so-called dual criminal and administrative immigration enforcement authority as a crime-fighting asset. It can simply take an individual off the streets if he’s undocumented without proving a criminal case against him. The agency says that its anti-gang unit has arrested some 32,000 gang members and associates since 2005, more than a third of whom were detained on immigration violations.

ICE’s investigative reach is so long and broad that it is virtually impossible to find a big law enforcement task force with which it’s not involved.

But, Flippo said, the city of Santa Cruz will no longer join ICE in large-scale operations, because it can’t trust the agency.

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After the immigration arrests, Flippo claimed, ICE refused to disclose who was detained in Santa Cruz and who authorized the agents to go outside the scope of the operation. The city has asked local Congressman Jimmy Panetta and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris to investigate. (Panetta is scheduled to meet with ICE’s acting director next month on the issue.)

Some California cities also are rethinking their relationships with ICE. Pasadena, citing its sanctuary status, opted out of an agreement whereby ICE paid overtime costs for local officers while they worked on joint operations. San Francisco recently ended its participation in the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, which also includes ICE. In Oakland, also a sanctuary jurisdiction, the police department works on joint task forces with ICE, and has signed agreements to allow some of its officers to train as Homeland Security Customs agents and carry out some of their duties. It also entered into another pact similar to Pasadena’s for overtime reimbursement by ICE. Now the city is reconsidering its participation with ICE, as well as its membership in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Many cities, however, are likely to continue their joint operations with ICE because of the additional personnel, intelligence-gathering capacity and cash that the agency brings to crime fighting. Grants are available to police agencies that work on some task forces, and overtime reimbursement for local officers is commonplace.

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Immigrant supporters protest during the Los Angeles City Council ad hoc committee on immigration meeting to discuss the city's response to threats by the Trump administration to cut funding from Los Angeles and other jurisdictions, March 30. REuters

State Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin de León may have headed off some law enforcement opposition to his sanctuary state bill, Senate Bill 54, which recently passed the California Senate on a strict party line vote, when he amended it to specifically permit joint law enforcement task forces, despite a general prohibition against sharing information and resources with immigration authorities.

Los Angeles Police Department Director of Constitutional Policing and Policy Arif Alikhan cited ICE’s wide-ranging investigative responsibilities as a valuable tool for his department.

“It’s important that we leverage those resources to help protect the community,” Alikhan told Capital & Main. “There certainly is a challenge in that.”

In March, the department reported to the Los Angeles City Council that its joint operations with the agency include:

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  • The Border Security Task Force;
  • The Financial Investigative Seizure Team that combats money laundering;
  • A group that investigates Internet crimes against children;
  • The Los Angeles and Long Beach Maritime Anti-Smuggling team;
  • A team that protects intellectual property.

The LAPD website shows the department also takes part in a group of anti-drug task forces, known as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task forces, alongside ICE and other federal and local agencies.

The LAPD declined to provide Capital & Main with a full list of the task forces on which it works with immigration authorities, but the agency is deeply embedded in policing across the state. In February, public radio station KPCC reported that in some 50 cities in Los Angeles County, ICE has agreements similar to the one Pasadena ended for overtime reimbursement to local law enforcement agencies for officers while they work on joint operations.

ICE also works with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and dozens of local law enforcement departments on a task force that addresses white collar and organized crime, identity theft and computer crime. The sheriff’s office received a $2 million federal grant for its participation. The Contra County Sheriff’s Department signed a deal with ICE to train deputies for customs-enforcement work so that the department could share asset forfeiture proceeds with the feds, said Assistant Sheriff Elise Warren. Although the agreement remains in effect, Warren said ICE trained only one deputy, and that was before the contract was signed. ICE has also conducted drug operations with the California Highway Patrol and partnered with the San Francisco Police Department on human trafficking issues.

In Los Angeles, a coalition of attorneys and immigrant rights activists are urging the LAPD to opt out of participation in joint task forces altogether, and update the city’s policy on immigration enforcement, known as Special Order 40, which was created in 1979. The policy bars local police from inquiring about immigration status or enforcing immigration law, but activists argue that it’s antiquated and refers to teletype machines, “aliens” and requires officers to note the arrests of undocumented immigrants and forward the information to immigration authorities, a practice that no longer exists. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Executive Directive 20 extends Special Order 40 to the fire department, and the port and airport police, but doesn’t alter the original order’s substance.

“Special Order 40 needs to conform to present-day reality with how LAPD works with federal agencies,” said Victor Narro, the project director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, and a longtime immigration rights activist.

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Victor Narro, the project director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Labor Center. Joanne Kim/Capital & Main

In L.A., that collaboration has proved disastrous for some longtime residents, argued attorney Emi McLean, a member of the Los Angeles immigration coalition who works with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Last summer, MacLean said, single mother and grandmother Xochitl Hernandez was erroneously labeled a gang member and arrested while LAPD and ICE officers served a search warrant at a home she was visiting in East Hollywood. Another single mother of four, Isabel Mejia, was also picked up by ICE as agents joined the LAPD to raid what they thought was a human trafficking operation in South Los Angeles in late 2015. Actually, the officers broke up a house party and MacLean claimed Mejia was among eight people arrested for immigration violations.

“People were ripped away from their families, ripped away from their communities because of police action in partnership with ICE,” MacLean said.

“It’s really hard to regulate what happens in the street,” noted Victor Narro. “The best possible scenario is not to have cooperation.”

MacLean argued that the LAPD has sufficient resources to fight crime without ICE, but she contended if the department thinks joint task forces are essential, it is powerful enough to exact a pledge from the agency to refrain from immigration arrests while working with L.A. police officers.

She and others have asked the LAPD for a full accounting of its cooperation with ICE, along with a list of those who have been arrested for immigration violations during the LAPD’s joint operations with ICE.

The Los Angeles activists claim police brass are currently not inclined to alter Special Order 40, and that they plan to press their case with the L.A. Police Commission.

“It’s a way of holding our leaders accountable,”  Narro said. “The more we know about what’s happening and what’s not happening as far as collaboration and enforcement, the more we’re able to bring together LAPD and city officials to have a dialog about about protecting the rights of immigrants and immigrant families.”

Robin Urevich is a journalist and radio reporter whose work has appeared on NPR and Marketplace as well as in the  San Francisco Chronicle  and the  Las Vegas Sun.

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