October 10, 2008

When ICE Comes to Your Town

By Raj Jayadev
New America Media

SAN JOSE – Eloy, Ariz., is nothing like San Jose. More than a thousand miles away, placed in the middle of the desert, it is a blazingly hot, desolate and an unremarkable town, roughly an hour and a half south of Phoenix. It is so secluded that Greyhound doesn’t even go there.

Eloy is also host to one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country, and for many is the last stop before deportation.

But now, a week after the largest immigration enforcement operation in California history, which brought in more than 1,000 people, and was a sort of coming out party for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new San Jose Fugitive Operation Team, the distance from San Jose and Eloy already seems significantly shorter.

An estimated 436 people were arrested by ICE from the San Francisco Bay Area – many likely headed to Eloy – and immigrant communities here are on notice: they are in a new era of immigration enforcement, and ICE could be anywhere.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was established in 2003, as the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. In order to expand ICE’s field efforts, it created Fugitive Operation Teams to locate, arrest and remove “fugitives” from the United States. ICE defines a fugitive as “an alien who has failed to report to a Detention and Removal Officer after receiving notice to do so.”

In 2003, there were eight Fugitive Operation Teams in the country. ICE now has 95 teams across the country, and expects to have more than 100 by the end of the year.

This year ICE is in the process of deploying teams in Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ohio, Charleston, S.C., Colorado Springs, Colo., Des Moines, Iowa, Fort Worth, Texas and two in New York City. In California, ICE is adding new teams in San Bernardino, San Diego, San Jose and Ventura County.

As of August, Fugitive Operations Teams have arrested 26,945 people this year. In 2003, they arrested less than 2,000.

Craig Meyer, ICE’s assistant field office director in San Francisco, says the recent three-week statewide enforcement “surge,” and the first assignment of the new San Jose Fugitive Operation Team, was a major success. “To have a team in San Jose means we can be out there more often, and have more flexibility to cover Northern California,” says Meyer.

While Meyer says they did not track the number of arrests in San Jose, he estimates that they may target between 4,000 and 6,000 people in that city. Meyer says ICE opened a San Jose office in June to target the large number of undocumented immigrants there.

Virginia Kice, Western Regional communications director for ICE, adds that for security reasons they cannot give out descriptions of how large the San Jose ICE team is. But according to a 2007 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), teams have an average of seven members.

The report, titled “An Assessment of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Fugitive Operations Teams,” also points to significant increases in arrest goals. The goal of each team in 2003 was 125 people; by 2006 that number jumped to 1,000 per team. These increased objectives are consistent with the Office of Detention and Removal Operations Strategic Plan, “End-game,” indicating that the national aim of the Fugitive Operations Teams is to “eliminate the backlog of fugitive aliens by the end of 2012.”

Despite an increase in arrests, the OIG report presented several critiques of the Fugitive Operation Team model. Among other conclusions, the reports states that the “fugitive alien apprehensions reported did not accurately reflect the teams’ activities…the teams performed duties unrelated to fugitive operations, contrary to Office of Detention and Removal Operations Policy…” and that “the removal rate of fugitive aliens could not be determined.”

The review also points out the fact that these arrests are only a drop in the bucket, and that the number of people in this country who may end up in their case log may be “growing at a rate that exceeds the teams’ ability to apprehend.” Considering that there are now an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the potential case log could be enormous.

Angie Junck, staff attorney for San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center, is not surprised by the new San Jose Fugitive Operations Team and the surge tactics. She says immigrant communities in cities with new teams need to be particularly vigilant in protecting their rights.

Junck says local enforcement plans are a fallout from failed national immigration talks around comprehensive immigration reform. “This all started when, in order to have a conversation around paths to legalization, legislators had to couple the discussion with enforcement. Even though the legalization process did not occur, this is the resulting enforcement effort,” she says.

Junck warns that at a local level, “these enforcement increases are going to create an atmosphere of fear and terror, and will threaten due process for all in the community.”

The ILRC, where Junck works, has created Know Your Rights cards that explain due process rights such as the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, community raid networks and triage centers to help families respond to an arrest. According to Junck, “ICE has a history of violating people’s rights by racially profiling, threatening, and using unlawful interrogation techniques while picking up their targets.”

While Kice is quick to say that Fugitive Operation Team go after individual targets, Junck says they often arrest whomever they may come across during an operation. Meyer of ICE calls these “collateral arrests” and admits, “If we go to a place, we are going to check everyone’s identifying documents, and enforce the law.”

This accounts for the discrepancy of numbers: In last week’s “surge,” ICE reported 436 arrests, and said that 185 of these were immigration fugitives. The vast majority were collateral apprehensions – individuals who were not initially targeted by the Fugitive Operations Teams.

Junck says local immigrant communities need to educate each other about their rights, and keep a watchful eye on cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement.

For now, Meyer says, ICE has no active relationship with law enforcement in San Jose. “We notified them of our operation for courtesy,” he says, “but they did not assist.”

When asked if ICE will be employing more statewide surge tactics, he says that they do not know of any upcoming plans. Either way, he expects the new San Jose Fugitive Operations Team to be busy.

“While the big enforcement operations get a lot of media responses, we are out there every day, trying to meet our goal,” he says.

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