It’s not quite 4 a.m. on a Monday in late March when a handful of immigration agents gather in the parking lot of a Santa Clarita sheriff’s station.
For more than a month, agents have staked out a home a few blocks away. They have watched a man walk out the door at 4:45 a.m., get in his 2003 white Escalade, merge onto the 5 Freeway and head to work.
“Like clockwork. Every day,” Deputy Field Office Director David Marin says.
The man is one of four targets the team plans to arrest this day as part of a national weeklong roundup of immigrants with criminal histories or prior deportation orders that ended last week with the detention of 3,168 people nationwide. The targets, including 206 who were arrested in the Los Angeles area, were the types of people that immigration agents say are their highest priority for deportation.
The Santa Clarita man was convicted of battery in 1986 and 1994, and had been deported. But he returned illegally.
A little past 4 a.m., the agents head to the home in a caravan that includes a van and SUVs with tinted windows.
As is the case with many immigration arrests, the officers don’t have a warrant. Sometimes they can convince people to open their doors and let them in. Often, they simply wait outside.
“Fifteen years ago, people used to invite us in for coffee,” Marin said. “Now they’re more savvy.”
The agents wait in the dark for the man. It’s 4:30, 4:40, 4:45. The lights turn on. Nobody comes out.
The hours and staff involved in operations such as this are great, immigration officials say. Nearly 2,000 agents worked over six days in last week’s effort, the third of its type since May 2011.
The agency prefers enforcement programs such as Secure Communities, which automatically compares fingerprints of incoming arrestees with immigration records, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. That program has come under fire because it has netted many low-level offenders or those with no criminal convictions.
At 5:58 a.m. the agents give up on the Santa Clarita suspect and head to Chatsworth to wait for the next man on the list.
They have been tracking him too: he served three years in prison after a 1995 conviction for manufacturing and delivery of narcotics and was deported. But like the first suspect, he came back. About 7:30 a.m., he’s expected to emerge and get on his bike to run some errands.
He turns out to be more reliable than the first man.
At 7:42 a.m., he walks out of his home with three children who look like they are on their way to school. He’s wearing a shirt that says “No Fear” and has a blue WWE backpack slung over his shoulders.
“Here we go,” an agent says on the radio.
The SUVs and a car with lights pull up in front of the home. Two agents walk up to the man. They tell the older child that they need to talk with their father about an immigration issue and ask him to take the younger two children inside. He complies.
The man is calm at first, but after the agents put cuffs on him he starts looking desperate.
“I want to talk to my daughter,” he says. “Nini! Nini!”
The children watch from behind a screen door. Their grandmother comes to the door and stands near them.
“I’m not going now if I don’t see my daughter,” he says.
One car takes the man downtown for processing while the others head to Panorama City.
There, they wait for more than an hour for a man to come out of his apartment. When they finally knock on the door, nobody answers.
Their fourth target lives in a North Hollywood neighborhood that the agents say is known for its gangs. By then it’s almost 10 a.m., and they decide that showing up in uniform, driving SUVs with tinted windows probably isn’t discreet.
On the way downtown for paperwork, Marin, a former Marine who oversees hundreds of immigration enforcement agents in the Los Angeles area, says the day’s work shows how the agency’s priorities have changed over the years.
“The days of the old INS raids, of going to Home Depot and getting day laborers, we don’t do that anymore,” he says.
Though many immigrant advocates would disagree, many agents now see their work as tracking down the worst of the worst, the “narcotics dealers, child molesters and spousal abusers,” Marin said. And when they miss a target it can be disappointing.
“At least we got one right,” he said.