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Swept away 

Learn the ins and outs of ICE gang 'sweeps'

It started with a simple question: “Where are they now?”

But it turns out finding the whereabouts of 11 reported Mexican nationals arrested in a February sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Santa Maria is no small task. This reporter was soon lost in the bureaucratic black hole of the immigration court system.

click to enlarge UNDER COVER OF NIGHT :  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, working with local police officers, conducted an early morning gang “sweep” in Los Angeles. ICE has performed several similar sweeps on the Central Coast since 2006, focused primarily in Santa Maria, under a nationwide program called Operation Community Shield. - PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT
  • UNDER COVER OF NIGHT : U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, working with local police officers, conducted an early morning gang “sweep” in Los Angeles. ICE has performed several similar sweeps on the Central Coast since 2006, focused primarily in Santa Maria, under a nationwide program called Operation Community Shield.

What we do know for a fact is that between Feb. 11 and 16, ICE agents—along with officers from the Santa Maria Police Department and sheriff’s deputies from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties—knocked on doors in Santa Maria, looking for previously deported felons.

The SLO Sheriff’s Department contributed two deputies to one raid and a single deputy to another that were both coordinated by ICE, according to department spokesman Rob Bryn. The deputies were from the department’s anti-gang task force, which, Bryn said, routinely assists other agencies in law enforcement activities.

Agents arrested Juvileo Marquez Gonzaga, Ezequiel Santos Mora, Alejandrino Camarillo, Rafael Esquera Ruiz, Carlos Mendez, Cresencio Espinoza Ramirez, Fredy Alonso Vicente, Yohana Beas-Uribe, Mauricio Diaz Avalos, Eduardo Garcia Ramirez, and Antonio Cruz Santos. All were reported Mexican citizens.

Though ICE conducted the sweep under “Operation Community Shield,” a program intended to stifle the rapid growth of transnational gangs in this country, the arrestees weren’t all gang members. In fact, none of the arrestees was charged criminally, according to ICE, though they all had prior immigration violations.

From there, details start to get problematic. But first, let’s backtrack a bit.

Operation Community Shield

A gang “sweep” operation can start a couple of different ways. A local police department may initiate it, or one could be ordered by ICE under Operation Community Shield. During such operations, agents don’t just go around knocking on doors willy-nilly. They rely on local police officers to identify locations of reputed gang members. Lists are created, and the groundwork for the operations is laid out months in advance.

ICE, under the watchful eye of the Department of Homeland Security, established Operation Community Shield in 2005. Since that program’s inception, agents have arrested more than 20,000 suspected gang members and their associates.

“It’s been well received in the various communities in which we’ve exercised that authority and brought that operation to light,” said David Wales, the ICE Homeland Security Investigations resident agent in charge (RAC) in Ventura. “The communities have welcomed it with open arms.”

 After a briefing, ICE agents form teams along with local police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and probation officers. In contrast to a SWAT raid, sweeps are fairly low-key. Agents knock on doors, typically during the pre-dawn hours, asking if the person they’ve targeted is home.

According to Wales, who oversees sweeps in the Tri-Counties, ICE determines where to conduct the operations based on cooperation it gets from local police and where agents believe they can make the greatest impact on gang activity.

“[Santa Maria] is an area that we think is very important,” Wales said. “Based on some of the things that have gone on in the last couple of years, I know that I’ve made that one of my personal missions to try and clean up that town as much as we possibly can, given the authorities that we bring to bear.”

To figure out who to target, ICE has a hierarchy, as opposed to criteria. According to ICE Western Regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice, agents look for the most egregious criminal offenders.

“We’re finding that gangs, in many places, are increasingly involved in collateral types of criminal activity—whether it’s human smuggling, drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, all those attendant activities—because they need to generate proceeds to support the organization,” Kice said.

As far as ICE is concerned, even if the people they encounter during a sweep aren’t gang members, that doesn’t mean they aren’t deportable. Though ICE may not always have solid evidence to pursue gang charges, the body can—and does—make administrative immigration arrests for people with a prior criminal record or who are otherwise subject to deportation.

ICE’s arresting authority extends beyond that of local police departments. During a sweep, agents ask the status of people in the residence, whether they have warrants or not, and it’s up to the team leader’s discretion on whether to make an arrest.

“There are situations where there are undocumented people in the house, but that’s not exactly what we’re looking for at that time,” ICE’s Wales said. “I’d say it’s probably a byproduct of being out there in the enforcement operation. For me to sit here and say it doesn’t happen, that wouldn’t be accurate. They do happen from time to time.”

From 2005 to 2010, according to ICE, of the 19,051 arrests made under Operation Community Shield nationwide, 10,417—or 55 percent—were administrative.

Over the last three fiscal years in the Tri-Counties, the department has made 62 arrests during separate sweep operations: 35 criminal and 27 administrative.

According to immigration lawyer Mark Daly, who practices in Santa Barbara, for those arrested on administrative violations, there are usually extenuating circumstances.

“In most cases, [being in the country illegally] alone doesn’t do anything,” Daly said. “Something else has to happen. You have to get that drunk driving or be in that house where somebody with a prior deportation is getting picked up. The odds of entering the United States and magically getting caught are very low.”

But Daly, who’s represented hundreds of local clients charged with immigration violations, said the ICE sweeps cast a wide net.

“If the knock on the door is from ICE, there’s a chance they will ask the status of anybody in that house, which could jeopardize parents or visitors,” he said. “When [the agents are] in those houses, they have a right to question other members. I’ve represented several people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were here illegally, they’re at a house with someone who was deported previously who never left, and they’re caught up in that.”

According to Daly, constitutional challenges to such arrests usually fail, because ICE agents have a reasonable suspicion that others in the home might be deportable. As long as current laws stand, he said, families will continue to be broken up by deportations.

“Unless our Constitution is modified or amended, like it has been before, this is going to continue,” Daly said. “These mixed families of legal vs. illegal will continue. There’s no solution, the way our system is currently set up.”

Police officers don’t have the authority to ask for immigration papers, unless a person is arrested for a criminal matter. Officers can ask an arrestee if he or she was born in the country, and from there, they can ask for an immigration review. Then it’s up to ICE to decide whether it’s going to take action against them.

Undocumented immigrants found guilty of crimes are routinely deported to their country of origin after serving time in state prison. Just as routinely, they eventually re-enter the country.

According to Santa Maria Police Department Lt. Jerel Haley, head of the department’s Gang Suppression Team, the ICE sweeps can be extremely effective for local police, especially in dealing with felons who continue to come back into the United States, even after they’ve been deported.

click to enlarge CHART.jpg

“If you’re looking at it like a tool bag, we’re going to use a variety of tools at different times to fit the specific job we’re going after,” Haley said. “We have seen a reduction in gang crime. Is it directly attributed to this one particular tool? There’s no way I could tell you yes or no.”

In addition to employing ICE’s help, the department has increased officers on the city’s gang unit, and through enhanced prosecution, some gang members have received multiple life sentences.

“Cumulatively, all of those things that we do have had a significant impact in the reduction of gang crime within the community,” he said.

Though Haley said there are no plans to conduct another sweep anytime soon, Santa Maria police are pleased with their relationship with ICE and want the operations to continue. ICE is likewise enthusiastic, so much so that Wales said he’d eventually like to have a full-time ICE office in the city.

“I can tell you we’re not going away,” he said.

Where are they now?

Arrests made during ICE sweeps are dealt with at a federal level. When undocumented immigrants are arrested in Santa Barbara County on administrative immigration violations, they’re typically taken to the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staging facility in Camarillo to be fingerprinted and processed.

At that time, officers determine whether the undocumented immigrant will be held in ICE custody or released under supervision, pending a hearing before an administrative immigration judge.

If it’s not a serious crime, the undocumented immigrant can sometimes get out on bond while waiting for a hearing. Gang members and people suspected of certain violent crimes have to remain in jail and wait through the proceedings.

If the person is going to be detained, arrangements are made to transfer him or her to one of ICE’s long-term detention facilities, including the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.

Once someone is turned over to the immigration system, he or she is housed and transported by the Enforcement Removal Operations component of ICE.

“At that point, we really don’t track where they go or what happens to them if they’re removed,” Wales said. “We’re still trying to focus on the ongoing threats out in the community we serve.”

Once an undocumented immigrant is arrested, details are hard to come by as to what happens next. ICE doesn’t release names or other identifying information of those arrested on administrative immigration violations. The Department of Justice website does have a Detainee Locator to discover at which facility arrestees are being held—if searchers have the detainee’s Alien Registration Number, that is.

And not just anybody can get the number. Like Social Security numbers, Alien Registration Numbers are personal identifiers; the government won’t disclose them without the expressed consent of the individual.

According to Ventura County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Mike Aranda, six of the people arrested in the February sweep were booked in Ventura County Jail. All were charged with federal immigration violations and detained for less than a day before being released to federal authorities.

While it wouldn’t release names, ICE reported that five of the February arrestees have already been deported from the United States to Mexico. One of the arrestees remains in state custody on local charges, and five are currently in deportation proceedings, awaiting a decision on their cases from an immigration judge. Four of the five have been released on bond, pending the outcome of their proceedings.

To deport or not to deport

According to ICE Resident Agent Wales, in criminal cases, people arrested in gang sweeps are prosecuted about 99 percent of the time.

For criminal arrests, undocumented immigrants are prosecuted in a typical state or federal judicial court. In jail, the inmate gets an ICE hold, so he or she is released into ICE custody after completing the state sentence.

Whether an immigrant arrested during the course of a sweep operation will be deported isn’t up to ICE. That’s for the U.S. Immigration Courts to decide. The courts make up an entirely separate system within the U.S. Department of Justice, administrated by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Sweep arrestees from the Central Coast are summoned to the Los Angeles Immigration Court for their hearings.

 Immigration courts don’t impose criminal sentences; they exist simply to determine whether an individual has a legal basis to remain in the United States. Court proceedings are open, but may be closed at a judge’s discretion. Unless an immigrant has a prior deportation order and has entered illegally on it, almost everyone has a right to an immigration hearing in front of an immigration judge.

During the proceedings, immigrants have a chance to argue before a judge why they should be allowed to remain in the United States. Lawyers accredited in immigration law represent immigrants, while ICE attorneys represent the federal government in the proceedings.

Once in front of a judge, immigrants can ask for a Cancellation of Removal order. Even if an immigrant is considered deportable, the judge can give him or her a green card in cases of “extreme and exceptionally unusual” hardship.

“Most immigration cases are denied, because Congress set the bar so high,” immigration lawyer Daly said. “That’s the highest standard of proof in immigration matters. So it’s really hard to win.”

If the immigrant loses in immigration court, he or she will be required to leave the country, but there’s no jail sentence imposed. Even then, he or she can appeal to Board of Immigration Appeals. A loss there can lead to challenges all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. Once the federal appellate court options run dry, the immigrant is supposed to leave the United States and is ordered to report to an ICE office for deportation.

In its current form, deportation can be a lengthy process, and there’s a huge backlog of cases in the immigration system.

“Unfortunately it’s not as streamlined as we might like it, but it does seem to work, and they do eventually work their way through this process,” ICE’s Wales said. “It’s not as simple as throwing a bunch of people on a bus or an airplane and repatriating them to their countries of citizenship.”

According to Daly, many gang members and other felons have been deported before—and reenter illegally. In such cases, they can be summarily re-deported under a concept called Reinforcement of Removal. The federal government can also try them in federal court for illegal reentry.

Daly said it’s common for a previously deported felon to do 10 years in federal prison for an illegal re-entry alone, but despite the harsh punishment, many still return.

 “There’s no real reforming of the law to stop the problem,” Daly said. “If anything, it sends a message that the longer you evade arrest, the better your chances are of achieving your objective of living here.” ∆

Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer for New Times’ sister paper to the south, the Santa Maria Sun. Contact him at jthomas@santamariasun.com.

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