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Delano police ask D.A. to investigate ICE statements about crash that killed 2

Delano police ask D.A. to investigate ICE statements about crash that killed 2
Family and friends attend funeral services on April 2 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano for migrant farmworkers, whose vehicle crashed as they fled immigration agents. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Delano Police Department has forwarded a report to the Kern County district attorney's office asking prosecutors to review whether federal immigration agents gave false information to police investigating a traffic crash that killed a couple who were in the country illegally.

Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Profecto were killed while fleeing from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on March 13. The couple had initially stopped, but then fled before crashing into a utility pole at high speed.

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According to a report, an ICE deportation officer told police that, after the initial stop, he was not in "pursuit with emergency lights/sirens." But surveillance video showed the immigration officers' cars traveling in the same direction as the couple's vehicle with their emergency lights activated.

"Based on the discrepancy the report was forwarded to the Kern County District Attorney's Office for review since they have jurisdiction," Delano's interim police chief, Raul Alvizo, said in a statement. "The charges requested are according to California Vehicle Code Section 31, 'No person shall give, either orally or in writing, information to a peace officer while in the performance of his duties under the provision of this code when such person knows that the information is false.' "

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The complaint, received Wednesday morning, is pending review, according to the district attorney's office. ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case comes amid rising tension between local agencies and ICE in California, as officials and police have to choose whether they will cooperate more with the immigration agency or abide by the state's "sanctuary" laws, intended to protect immigrants in the country illegally.

Last month, Los Alamitos leaders approved an ordinance that exempts their Orange County municipality from Senate Bill 54, a law that took effect Jan. 1 and prohibits state and local police agencies from notifying federal officials in many cases in which immigrants who are potentially subject to deportation are about to be released from custody.

The initiative is in addition to sanctuary city laws passed by numerous communities and other state laws that protect those without legal residency, including one that makes it a crime for business owners to voluntarily help federal agents find and detain unauthorized workers and another that creates a state inspection program for federal immigration detention centers.

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The Trump administration has gone to federal court to invalidate the state laws, claiming they blatantly obstruct federal immigration law and thus violate the Constitution's supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state measures. That case is pending.

Alvizo said that in referring the case to the district attorney, his department is only trying to do its "due diligence."

"It's not any different than say, for example, you were involved in a traffic accident and there was some issues there. We're going to send it to our D.A.," Alvizo said. "Because we don't want anybody to come back and say that we're hiding or we're trying to cover up for anybody. We're doing it the way we do it for anybody else.

"All we did is investigate the traffic collision. I don't know what the big deal is or why we're getting all these calls. It's an unfortunate traffic accident."

ICE deportation officer Ramiro Sanchez told police that on the morning of the crash, he and colleagues were conducting surveillance on an apartment in order to detain Celestino Hilario-Garcia, who was targeted for removal from the country.

Sanchez stated that a colleague witnessed Santos Hilario Garcia, whom they mistook for Celestino Hilario-Garcia, enter a vehicle in front of the apartment, along with a woman and a girl.

Sanchez and another deportation officer, Dimas Benitez, followed the car in black, unmarked Jeeps as the couple dropped their daughter off at school. Shortly afterward, Sanchez activated his emergency lights to signal the car to pull over.

Santos Hilario Garcia complied, but as Sanchez got out of his car, the couple's vehicle sped away, the report said.

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Three witnesses to the crash said the couple's car was not being followed or chased and that no police were present, according to the police report.

But statements provided by the deportation officers "contradict with the surveillance review conducted," the department stated in its report.

Delano police were dispatched to the crash scene shortly before 7 a.m. Officers found a blue Ford Explorer Sport Trac overturned with the couple inside. They died at the scene.

"Per routine protocol, at the time of the incident, the facts surrounding the encounter were referred for review and that review is ongoing," ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said in a statement Monday. "While this was an isolated and extremely unfortunate incident, ICE wants to encourage all individuals we encounter to fully cooperate with our law enforcement officers."

The statement cited sanctuary policies that "have pushed ICE out of jails" and "force our officers to conduct more enforcement in the community — which poses increased risks for law enforcement and the public.

"It also increases the likelihood that ICE will encounter other illegal aliens who previously weren't on our radar," Rocha said.

Santos Hilario Garcia had been convicted in 2014 of driving under the influence and was voluntarily returned to Mexico three times between 2008 and 2017. Profecto had no prior encounters with ICE.

Though Garcia matched the description of the arrest target, he was not the same individual, according to ICE.

Delano police have dealt firsthand with escalating fears over ICE in the city, even posting a statement to Facebook on March 1 to address rumors about the department assisting the federal agency in its operations.

"It was also rumored that ICE Agents are utilizing Delano Police Department police vehicles and clad in Delano police officer uniforms," the statement read. "I can assure the citizens of Delano that our Department and its police officers are NOT assisting ICE in their operations. I can also assure the citizens of Delano that ICE Agents are NOT utilizing Delano police vehicles nor our police uniforms. Likewise, our police officers are NOT targeting and arresting individuals on behalf of ICE."

Delano Mayor Grace Vallejo said she would "wait and see what the district attorney is going to do" before saying more.

"As far as to the community, I hope they understand that we honor the state of California's sanctuary cities law," Vallejo said. "We follow it and it is unjust that people are put in fear at a time when they're trying to support their families, and in this particular situation, it created something that should not have happened and that was due to the fear of ICE and deportation."

For more California news, follow @brittny_mejia

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UPDATES:

3 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Delano police.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.

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