Conflicting Accounts of an ICE Raid in Md.
Officers Portray Detention of 24 Latinos Differently in Internal Probe and in Court
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The boss was not happy. His elite team of immigration officers had been raiding targets across Prince George's and Montgomery counties all night long in search of fugitive and criminal immigrants but had netted only a handful.
As the unit regrouped in its Baltimore office that frigid January morning two years ago, the supervisor warned members that they were well behind a Washington-mandated annual quota of 1,000 arrests per team and ordered them back out to boost their tally.
"I don't care where you get more arrests, we need more numbers," he said, according to one account in a summary of an internal investigation. The boss then added that the agents could go to any street corner and find a group of illegal immigrants, according to the summary, not previously made public.
About an hour later, the nine-person team went to a nearby 7-Eleven and arrested 24 Latino men. But most of the detainees were hardly the threats to the United States that the team was designed to focus on.
The officers were part of a special unit that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt suspected terrorists or dangerous criminals who are "fugitive aliens," meaning they have evaded a deportation order. And although many of the 24 Latinos detained at the 7-Eleven were found to have been in the country illegally, 14 were not fugitive immigrants. One, Ernesto Guillen, was merely stopping for coffee on his way to join his wife at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where their 4-year-old son was undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.
The Jan. 23, 2007, incident, described in ICE documents and shown in security camera footage obtained by The Washington Post, offers a glimpse into how Washington's directives on arrest targets might have spurred officers in the field to stray from their mission and stage a random sweep for illegal immigrants, possibly in violation of ICE's stated practice.
Even as ICE's National Fugitive Operations Program has garnered more than $625 million from Congress since its launch in 2003, critics have long suspected that Washington's practice of setting goals for apprehensions has led teams to bring in tens of thousands of immigrants who have not evaded a deportation order or committed a crime -- as opposed to being in the country unlawfully, which is a civil violation.
Recently, researchers from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York and the Migration Policy Institute in Washington released a report revealing a dramatic leap in arrests of immigrants who were neither fugitives nor criminals in 2006 and 2007 after officers were permitted to count non-fugitives toward their goal if such detainees were encountered in the course of an operation.
When a reporter contacted ICE for this article, spokeswoman Kelly A. Nantel disclosed that as of Feb. 4, ICE leadership had altered the annual goal of 1,000 arrests for each team. Instead, each team must now identify and target -- though not necessarily arrest -- 50 fugitives each month, as well as 500 a year as part of operations with other teams.
Nantel cited new statistics showing that in the 2008 fiscal year, the share of non-fugitive arrests by the teams dropped -- from 40 percent to 24 percent of arrests nationwide and to 6 percent of those made by the Baltimore team. Meanwhile, the new secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, has requested a review of fugitive operations.
Yet the aftermath of the 7-Eleven incident points to potential difficulties in changing ICE's institutional culture.
The initial account given by the agency, and supported in sworn declarations later made by some of the officers involved, was that the team had stopped at the 7-Eleven for a break when a group of Latino men approached, looking for day labor work. The officers said the men, when asked, voluntarily admitted to being in the country illegally, thus providing lawful grounds for their arrest.