The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear spreads in L.A. after immigration ‘raid,’ advocates claim. Officials say arrests are ‘routine.”

Protesters blocked an onramp to the 101 freeway in Los Angeles Feb. 9, objecting to what they claim is a rise in immigration raids. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The panicked emails and phone calls began streaming in from community members at about 11 a.m. Thursday morning, inundating Los Angeles immigration lawyers with far more cases than usual. Immigrant advocate groups claim that more than 100 people had been taken into custody by federal immigration officials in Southern California Thursday, indicating a “coordinated sweep” in arrests and heightening fears that Donald Trump’s promise to crackdown on deportations had begun to take effect.

Police and immigration officials denied the “raids” and disputed the claim that the arrests were part of a more stringent approach, saying any detentions were simply part of “routine” enforcement activities. But a flurry of calls regarding arrests spurred immigration attorneys into rapid response efforts, and prompted protests on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

“We know the daily patterns of people being picked up and taken,” Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There’s a natural flow of enforcement that happens every day. But this was not normal.”

According to Salas, the “raids” were taking place in Van Nuys, San Bernardino, Downey, Santa Paula and Oxnard. Immigration attorneys went to the downtown Los Angeles detention and removal facility Thursday afternoon and saw five white vans and one bus filled with people leave the premises. When an attorney asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement for information about clients who were detained, an ICE officer said more information was needed to identify the individuals, because more than 100 people were currently detained in the facility, Salas said. Usually only one or two people are detained in the center on a given day, Salas added.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California tweeted “URGENT: ICE conducted multiple raids of homes across the city.”

But a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the arrests were part of the agency’s “routine” enforcement activities.

“Our operations are targeted and lead driven, prioritizing individuals who pose a risk to our communities. Examples would include known street gang members, child sex offenders, and deportable foreign nationals with significant drug trafficking convictions,” the statement said. “To that end, ICE’s routine immigration enforcement actions are ongoing and we make arrests every day.”

This stance appeared to parallel practices under the Obama administration, which prioritized the deportation of people who were violent convicted offenders considered a threat to the public. Trump’s executive order on Jan. 25 vowed to cast a wider net and include any undocumented immigrants who had been convicted of a criminal offense. Salas said immigration attorneys heard of multiple examples of people detained Thursday who were not violent offenders. One man wasn’t even convicted of a crime, and another individual had simply received a speeding ticket, Salas said.

What Trump could learn from George Washington’s first executive order

Many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department have promised not to take part in the mass deportations Trump has called for.

Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Bob Green told the Los Angeles Times Thursday that the department knew of no ICE sweeps going on in the San Fernando Valley.

“There is information that is out there that is wrong,” he said, adding that his department would not participate in any federal immigration raids. “We are working hard with the immigrant communities to dispel fears.”

The Pomona Police Department released a statement warning community members of an “immigration checkpoint hoax” that had been circulating on social media claiming that officers had joined immigration officials conducting immigration checkpoints.

“We want our community to know that The Pomona Police Department is not participating in any immigration checkpoints nor are we aware of any such checkpoints scheduled in the City of Pomona,” the department said in the release. “We encourage the community to always fact check to avoid “fake news”.

Meanwhile, immigration advocates called on ICE officials to release information regarding the number of people arrested in recent days.

“In most instances they’ll give us information about operations, not specifics, but they just weren’t wiling to do that,” Salas said. “That’s the problem that we’re finding, this lack of communication.”

“Who are these people?” she added. “How many were on this list that were all criminal aliens?”

A number of local lawmakers joined immigrant rights advocates in calling upon ICE to release additional information. California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) released a statement in reference to reports that ICE conducted raids across Southern California.

“It is now clear the Trump Administration is not concerned with public safety, they are only focused on ripping hard-working men, women, and children from their families and communities,” de León said. “Mass deportations will not make us safer, instead they will simply undermine our state’s economy.” State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) echoed similar thoughts on Twitter, calling for “clarity” from ICE.

Salas said immigration lawyers were able to connect with one individual who was taken into custody from his apartment. Immigration officials had been looking for a different person with an outstanding warrant at the same address, but when they came across this other undocumented man instead, they detained him, even though he had no prior convictions, Salas said.

Because the man had legal representation, immigration attorneys were able to keep him from being deported. They managed to remove him from the bus in which he was detained headed to Tijuana. The rest of the people on board the bus were taken the rest of the way to Mexico.

CHIRLA was also able to make contact with an individual who was reportedly taken into custody at a Target, and had only received a speeding violation at a previous time, Salas said.

Immigration rights advocates responded to so-called “raids” by urging community members to attend a vigil Thursday night at the ICE office downtown.

The vigil, attended by about 40 people, soon swelled into a protest with 100 attendees, the Mercury News reported. Some carried signs and held candles, chanting “Let them out!” and marching back and forth in front of the detention center’s driveways — apparently to block cars from coming out. A crowd marched on Aliso Street and linked arms to block the entrance to the southbound 101 Freeway.

LAPD officers responded to the scene, telling protesters to disperse “or you will be arrested.” There were no indications of violence or arrests at the event by later Thursday night.

The rally came only a day after Phoenix immigration rights advocates took to the streets to protest the detention and subsequent deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos, a Mexican mother of two U.S. born children who was taken into custody after visiting ICE offices in central Phoenix for her regular check-in with immigration officials.

An Arizona mom is deported. How many others might face the same fate?

The Los Angeles metro area is home to 1 million unauthorized immigrants, making it the second largest unauthorized immigrant population in the nation following New York City, with 1.2 million, according to an analysis released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. No other metro area approached a million. Five of the 20 metros with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations are in California: Los Angeles, Riverside-San Bernardino, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose.

On Thursday, Salas said that one immigration enforcement agent told an attorney that “a lot of things have changed since January 20th.”

“I just feel it’s important to understand, what is normal to you now?” Salas said.

“It hasn’t even been three weeks,” she added. “There has to be a reining in, there has to be more compassion in the system and more common sense about what we’re doing on immigration policy. It’s just not right.”