Immigration arrests heighten fears in Southern California as hoaxes, false rumors swirl

The alarm sounded a few minutes past 3. A leading advocacy group for immigrant rights blasted out an email alert Thursday afternoon, warning that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were sweeping up immigrants in raids throughout Los Angeles and nearby counties.

As many as 100 people had been detained, the alert said, and were being transported to a federal facility.

The email made no mention of President Trump or his plan to target for deportation a wide swath of the millions of people in the country illegally, but to many people already on edge, a connection seemed clear. Within the hour, scores of protesters had gathered downtown, blocking traffic while angrily denouncing the president. Elected officials followed suit, expressing outrage at Trump and demanding answers about the raids. Authorities in Mexico put out a warning to their citizens living in the U.S.

The reality was far less clear.

After initially declining to release details, ICE officials on Friday announced that the agency had, in fact, concluded a weeklong operation throughout Southern California that resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people. The agency insisted, however, that the sweep targeted people with criminal records and was no different in size or scope from operations carried out in years past under previous administrations.

In immigrant communities across Southern California, the arrests capped a week of anxiety as they waited for Trump’s promised crackdown. In addition to the federal immigration action, the communities were rattled by widespread false reports on social media of nonexistent raids and police checkpoints aimed at deporting non-citizens.

The situation also left police, politicians and immigration advocates trying to calibrate the right response. For elected officials in the state, who are largely opposed to Trump, it’s been about finding a middle ground that allows them to condemn both the president’s hard-line stance on immigration and criminals in the country illegally.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement scrambled to tamp down the hysteria, with some blaming the immigration rights advocates for crying wolf and heightening fears.

“Stop scaring my community,” said Santa Paula Police Chief Steven McLean, who described activist claims of a raid in his city as false. “Now I’ve got to go ahead and calm people’s fears.”

The group that first sounded the alarm, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, doubled down on its account Friday, saying the arrests portend a new reality under Trump for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Other civil liberties groups took a less strident tack, expressing concerns about the lack of information surrounding the arrests while also noting that they had criticized the Obama administration, which deported large numbers of people, usually focusing on those with criminal histories.

Although ICE had been carrying out its operation in the region since Monday, it was not until Thursday that family members and attorneys alerted CHIRLA of arrests being made.

There was nothing new to the idea of a concentrated push by ICE to find and apprehend large numbers of people who had been identified as being in the country illegally. In July, for example, ICE publicized a similar effort that caught 112 people.

But the lack of official information about the ICE operation this week allowed unchecked allegations and rumors to swirl. In light of an executive order Trump signed into effect last month, which dramatically broadened the scope of who should be targeted for deportation, the arrests were assumed to signal something new.

“People called us. Attorneys called us, that this was happening, that this was not normal,” said CHIRLA Executive Director Angelica Salas. “There is a heightened level of anxiety. There’s a heightened level of fear because of everything that is happening.”

Democratic politicians aligned against Trump jumped into the information vacuum.

“It’s outrageous that ICE would go into the homes of hardworking people and tear them away from their children,” U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement Thursday evening.

Cardenas’ spokeswoman, Francesca Amodeo, said Friday that the congressman thought it was important to speak out on behalf of immigrants at risk, though she said Cárdenas agrees that residents here illegally who commit violent crimes should face federal enforcement action.

On Friday, at the end of the operation, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said that 161 people had been arrested and that 37, all from Mexico, were deported. All but 10 of the people arrested, she said, had criminal convictions, although she did not provide details or the identities of those apprehended.

David Marin, the director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE in Los Angeles, said the actions taken this week were planned before Trump took office. A few people, he said, were swept up because they were found to be in the country illegally while other arrests were being carried out. But roughly 75% of those arrested, he said, had prior felony convictions for crimes that included “sex offenses, assault, robbery and weapons violations.”

“The rash of these recent reports about ICE checkpoints and random sweeps and the like, it’s all false, and that’s definitely dangerous and irresponsible,” Marin said. “Reports like that create panic and they put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he also was trying to get answers.

“Angelenos should not have to fear raids that are disruptive to their peace of mind and bring unnecessary anxiety to our homes, schools, and workplaces,” he said in a statement.

It was difficult, however, to tell fact from fiction in the region’s immigrant communities.

The scent of cooked eggs lingered inside Rosita’s Pupuseria restaurant in Downey, one of the cities in which CHIRLA said ICE made arrests. The radio played Spanish disco music. Sitting next to a jukebox, Elizabeth Mendoza, 42, drank an orange soda.

“There’s always rumors,” Mendoza said. “One time, my son’s friend sent him a picture of a white bus and told him there was an immigration sweep going on. He showed me, but I couldn’t tell if that was true.”

The talk of immigration sweeps, she said, has further frayed already worn nerves among immigrants. A friend living in the country illegally asked Mendoza and her husband to sign a letter stating that if she is deported, they would take custody of her 2-year-old daughter. “That’s horrible, to even have to consider that,” she said.

One of the people arrested in the ICE operation was Jose Isidro Mares, 38, who was picked up by immigration officials at his job at a tire shop in Lancaster, said his 18-year-old daughter, Desiree Mares.

Her father was brought to the United States as a child and has lived most his life in the U.S., she said, adding that he had been deported once, before she was born.

Court records show Mares has a recent conviction for providing a false identification to law enforcement officials in the Antelope Valley. He also has convictions more than a decade old for felony evasion and possession of methamphetamine.

A single dad, Mares raised his daughter after her mother left them years ago. “I don’t know why they took the only person I had. They took my life,” she said.

Mares said she’s worried about how her father will get by in Mexico, adding that he’s currently in a motel in Tijuana.

“His English is perfect,” she said. “He knows some Spanish.”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo contributed to this report.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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ruben.vives@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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