Spurned by local law enforcement, ICE stages elaborate immigration raids
With fewer county jails cooperating with federal immigration programs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they increasingly have to rely on costly and dangerous manhunts, such as this one conducted Wednesday in Riverside.
The team of federal agents gathered before dawn in an empty strip mall parking lot in Riverside.
As they readied their guns and strapped on black Kevlar vests, the leader of the operation briefed them on the day’s targets: several immigrants with criminal records who were in the country illegally.
One of them, 32-year-old Hugo Medina, was convicted of driving under the influence in 2010, of petty theft in 2014 and of drug possession earlier this year, according to court documents. He was released from Riverside County jail in June after jail officials declined to honor a request from immigration authorities to transfer him to their custody.
Agents had been casing his house — a tidy bungalow on the city’s north side — for several days.
On cue, they stormed the property early Wednesday, guns drawn. Five minutes later, Medina was led out, shoeless and dressed in cutoff shorts. Inside, his mother, wife and three young children sobbed.
It used to be simpler for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to locate and deport immigrants who had been convicted of crimes. The agency would contact local jails and ask that such inmates be held until an ICE van could pick them up.
But last year a federal judge found that practice illegal, prompting hundreds of counties to stop honoring the detainer requests. As a result, ICE officials say they have to rely on costly and dangerous manhunts like the one conducted Wednesday in Riverside.
The agency’s Fugitive Operation teams carry out raids across the country every morning.
Originally formed to locate immigrants who had failed to comply with a judge’s deportation order, the program is increasingly being used to find immigrants with criminal convictions who have recently been let out of jail. Of the more than 27,000 people whom authorities arrested last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2014, about 78% had criminal convictions, according to ICE data.
“It would be so much safer for the community if we took custody of this individual in the jail,” said David Marin, deputy director of ICE’s Los Angeles field office. “It would have taken us two officers to do that, as opposed to the eight or nine that we have out here now.”
ICE officials have held up the agency’s new Priority Enforcement Program as a cheaper and safer alternative to dramatic neighborhood raids. Under the new program, ICE asks jails to notify the agency when potentially deportable inmates are being released from custody, and occasionally asks jails to hold detainees it considers especially dangerous.
Immigrant advocates don’t buy that argument.
“It’s a form of blackmail,” said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an immigrant rights group. “They’re saying, ‘Acquiesce to this bad program or we’ll do something worse.’”
Newman and others say the agency’s new jail program is simply a rebranding of a controversial earlier initiative, Secure Communities, the post-release detainer program that the federal judge found unconstitutional. Advocates say thousands of U.S. citizens were wrongfully detained and many immigrants with little or no criminal record were deported as a result of the program.
Since counties stopped honoring ICE detainer requests last year, the number of deportations has plummeted, along with the number of people held in immigrant detention, according to ICE data.
The relationship between local police and federal immigration officials has been under scrutiny this summer after several high-profile crimes committed by immigrants with criminal histories.
Immigration agents had sought custody of a Mexican immigrant charged in the shooting death of a woman on a San Francisco pier in July. They had also sought custody of a Mexican immigrant charged this month in the rape and killing of a Santa Maria woman.
In both cases, the local jails had refused to hold the men for ICE because of state and local policies limiting collaboration with the agency.
In recent weeks, several members of Congress have proposed bills that would require local law enforcement officials to cooperate with immigration agents. Immigrant advocates oppose such efforts, saying any form of collaboration erodes immigrants’ trust in police. They say federal agents, not jail officials, should be the only ones enforcing immigration laws.
On Wednesday, far from the Washington hearing rooms where such policies are being debated, the federal agents were having trouble tracking down their second target.
A 24-year-old Mexican immigrant — a suspected gang member with a criminal record who had previously been deported to Mexico — hadn’t been at the first two homes searched by agents. Agents hoped he was inside the La Paz apartment complex in one of Riverside’s toughest neighborhoods.
The agents drew their guns and pounded on a second-floor door. A shirtless man with elaborate tattoos on his chest answered, blinking groggily. Within seconds he was in handcuffs.
Immigration agents sought custody of the 24-year-old suspect on Aug. 1 while he was behind bars in Riverside County on gun charges. His criminal record and prior deportations made him a top priority for deportation under President Obama’s directive last fall that the agency focus on removing “felons, not families.”
But jail officials in Riverside, following county policy, declined to hold the man for ICE. They also refused an ICE request that the jail notify the agency when the man was being released.
He and Medina were put in the back of an unmarked van and driven to a Homeland Security processing center in San Bernardino, where they were photographed and fingerprinted.
As Medina waited for the bus that would take him to the border that afternoon, he talked about his case. His eyes were ringed with red and his voice was cracking.
He had made errors in judgment, he acknowledged, but he said he never set out to hurt anybody. Medina took responsibility for his impending deportation, which he called “the consequence I’m paying right now for the mistakes I’ve made.”
Born in Mexico, Medina came to the U.S. as a teenager to be with his parents, who were working here. He said he had no idea what he was going to do when he was dropped off in Tijuana.
He had used his one free phone call to talk to his wife. She was sitting in shock with their American-born children, who she said were traumatized by the raid that morning.
Medina had been deported several times before. The last time, he waited six months in Mexico and then crossed back. Asked whether he planned to do that again, he nodded.
“My whole family is here,” he said. “My kids are here. My youngest child, he cried and said, ‘Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me’ ... So I can’t stay there.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.