A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has resigned over what he described as “false” and “misleading” statements made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ICE acting director Thomas D. Homan.
James Schwab worked out of the agency’s San Francisco office until he abruptly quit last week. He said he had been told to “deflect” questions about the Oakland, Calif., mayor’s interference with an ICE raid last month and to refer reporters to statements from Sessions and Homan that suggested that hundreds of “criminals” (“criminal aliens,” Homan called them) escaped capture in Northern California because the mayor tipped them off.
“I quit because I didn’t want to perpetuate misleading facts,” Schwab told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I asked them to change the information. I told them that the information was wrong, they asked me to deflect, and I didn’t agree with that. Then I took some time, and I quit.”
Sessions, Homan and President Trump sharply criticized Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) for issuing a public warning in late February about an imminent ICE raid throughout the region. At the time, Schaaf said she wanted to protect “law-abiding” immigrants from “the constant threat of arrest and deportation.”
Schwab also criticized the mayor’s warning as “misguided,” but he told Fox affiliate KTVU after resigning that ICE ended up capturing 232 suspected undocumented immigrants — even more than officials had originally expected. About half of the people picked up had felonies or misdemeanors on their records, officials say.
In the raid’s aftermath, officials in Washington had repeatedly suggested that hundreds of criminals had escaped because of the mayor’s actions.
Homan said in a news release that “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large in the community, and I have to believe that some of them were able to elude us thanks to the mayor’s irresponsible decision.”
The ICE director went further the next day, according to the Chronicle, when he said that “there’s 800 that we are unable to locate because of that warning” — essentially blaming all the escapees on the mayor.
Then, last week, Sessions gave a speech in Sacramento. “How dare you?” he asked the mayor. “Those are 800 wanted criminals that are now at large in that community, 800 wanted criminals that ICE will now have to pursue by other means, with more difficulty, in dangerous situations, all because of one irresponsible action.”
These figures propagated across news outlets. Trump said Thursday that ICE had been prepared to arrest “close to 1,000 people” but got “a fraction” of that, thanks to the mayor — and called Schaaf a disgrace.
As the regional ICE spokesman, Schwab said this week, he had wanted to set the record straight.
The officials from Washington had been referring to the raid’s target list of about 1,000 people, he said, but immigration sweeps never net anywhere close to the total number of targets.
“I didn’t feel like fabricating the truth to defend ourselves against [the mayor’s] actions was the way to go about it,” he told the Chronicle. “We were never going to pick up that many people. To say that 100 percent are dangerous criminals on the street, or that those people weren’t picked up because of the misguided actions of the mayor, is just wrong.”
If reporters asked him about Homan’s and Sessions’s comments, he said, his superiors at ICE told him to simply “deflect to previous statements” from those top officials.
“It’s the job of a public affairs officer to offer transparency for the agency you work for,” Schwab told the Chronicle. “I’ve never been in a situation when I’ve been asked to ignore the facts because it was more convenient.”
As the days went by, he told CNN, “I just couldn’t bear the burden — continuing on as a representative of the agency and charged with upholding integrity, knowing that information was false.”
So after a long career as a government spokesman — with stints at NASA and the U.S. Army before he joined ICE in 2015, according to his online résumé — Schwab quit.
He announced the decision “abruptly,” another ICE official told KTVU.
ICE officials said late Tuesday that Schwab’s statements were inaccurate, and their percentage of arrests in California was lower than usual.
The agency said 925 of its targets in the San Francisco Bay area had “criminal histories.” The figure included 884 with felony or misdemeanor convictions, ICE officials said, without offering a breakdown of the severity of those crimes. The agency provided a sample list of 10 suspects who remain at large and whose convictions include manslaughter, armed robbery, sex with a minor and drunken driving.
“While we can’t put a number on how many targets avoided arrest due to the mayor’s warning, it clearly had an impact,” said ICE spokesperson Liz Johnson. “While we disagree with Mr. Schwab on this issue, we appreciate his service and wish him well.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department initially denied that the attorney general had spoken of “800 wanted criminals” in his speech.
“The AG said they were ‘wanted aliens’ not criminal,” Sarah Isgur Flores wrote to The Washington Post on Tuesday morning, referring to his prepared remarks.
But Sessions veered from the written remarks, and was was recorded saying “800 wanted criminals” at least twice in his speech.
In a subsequent statement to The Post, Flores wrote: “Does anyone seriously dispute that the Mayor attempted to thwart the efforts of federal law enforcement to apprehend wanted aliens in Oakland — many of whom had previously been arrested or convicted of crimes ranging from drug trafficking, to domestic abuse, to child pornography?
“But if anyone wants to have a public argument over precisely how many dangerous criminal aliens eluded arrest because of the Mayor’s irresponsible actions, we are happy to have that debate. We believe in the rule of law and one criminal alien victimizing residents of Oakland is one too many.”
Schaaf applauded Schwab’s decision to resign.
“I commend Mr. Schwab for speaking the truth while under intense pressure to lie,” she said in a statement to The Post. “Our democracy depends on public servants who act with integrity and hold transparency in the highest regard.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores did not dispute James Schwab’s statement. The story has been updated to accurately reflect Flores’s position and to include additional figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.