ICE Agents in Police Jackets Seize Undocumented Man Near His Daughter's School
This article has been updated on the basis of an article published in the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles may be a “sanctuary city,” but increasing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids are stoking fears throughout its undocumented communities.
ICE officials are using dubious new tactics in the attempt to detain undocumented immigrants. Reports of agents donning police uniforms and waiting outside sensitive locations—such as churches, schools and other areas where ICE arrests and detentions are forbidden—have begun to surface since President Trump took office.
An undocumented father of four seems to have experienced both tactics Tuesday in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles. Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, 48, who has lived in the United States for 25 years, had just dropped one of his daughters off at a school, Academia Avance, when ICE agents wearing jackets marked “POLICE” took him into custody.
Avelica-Gonzalez’s wife was in the automobile at the time, as was another of his daughters, 13-year-old Fatima, who wept as she recorded the incident on a smartphone:
Jocelyn Avelica, Avelica-Gonzalez’s 19-year-old daughter, told LAist that ICE agents had been following her father since he left their house that morning.
An ICE “Sensitive Locations” policy memo, which designates schools and other sensitive locations as off-limits to detentions, was first issued in 2011 and has not been rescinded by Trump’s administration.
“This memo covers schools, hospitals and churches, among other locations where it is important for our communities to feel safe and able to access health care, education and other essential services available to them as rights,” Emily Robinson, an attorney and co-director of the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic, told Truthdig. “An arrest of a father bringing his child to school, even if right outside of as opposed to on school grounds, will have a chilling effect on children in mixed-status families accessing education. While it is legal to wait outside of safe spaces for enforcement action, it also has costs for public health and safety that impact us all and is in contravention of stated ICE policy.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that Avelica-Gonzalez’s family says Tuesday’s arrest occurred less than two blocks from the school. ICE, the article says, maintains the stop was made half a mile from the school. The Times, on the basis of an analysis of the smartphone recording, says the video appears “to show that the arrest happened about six blocks away from Academia Avance.” The newspaper also writes:
An ICE official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said agents try to arrest people at locations that will involve the fewest bystanders. Historically, that meant arresting people at their residences or in jail, but fewer immigrants have opened their doors in the last few years unless agents have a warrant.
Additionally, many jails across the country stopped collaborating with ICE requests to detain immigrants until agents arrive. Because of that, more arrests now happen on the street, said the official.
The official said agents had Avelica-Gonzalez under surveillance, followed him to the school then determined where to safely stop the vehicle. Agents didn’t realize his other daughter was still in the car. Because the arrest was not carried out on school grounds, the official said, it does not represent a shift in policy. The official also noted that arrests by ICE’s fugitive operations teams, who locate immigrants with deportation orders, have remained flat over the past year.
This isn’t the first time ICE agents have donned police clothing to take somebody into custody. On Feb. 23, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and Mayor Eric Garcetti called on ICE agents to stop this practice.
“We have worked for decades in L.A. to build stronger trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement,” Garcetti said in a statement to Truthdig on Friday. “Misleading practices like these undermine the good faith and spirit of cooperation that is so integral to our city’s safety and security.”
This misleading practice is also routinely used by ICE officers attempting to enter a household without a warrant.
“You know, technically speaking, the ICE agents are law enforcement officers, but certainly when somebody hears, ‘Police, open up,’ or, ‘I’m a police officer,’ they’re not thinking immigration,” Los Angeles Times reporter Joel Rubin recently told NPR. “They’re thinking the local cop on the street. As far as we can tell, it’s pretty common.”
“It is legal for ICE authorities to dress in police uniform, but may lead to constitutional violations when it comes to evidence gathered,” Robinson said. “It is important to public safety that immigrants, just like everyone in our communities, feel safe around law enforcement members and empowered to cooperate and report crime. These actions on the part of ICE are egregious displays of power and demonstrate the willingness of this administration to tear apart families and degrade public safety to display power and strike fear in the hearts of the immigrant community.”
Academia Avance, a charter school, quickly rallied community support for the family.
“We want to be able to find resources to help this family go through this process,” said Academia Avance Executive Director Ricardo Mireles.
According to Mireles, Avelica-Gonzalez had an almost 20-year-old DUI conviction, and was also part of a minor incident involving an incorrect car registration sticker. Under the Obama administration, Avelica-Gonzalez likely wouldn’t have been targeted for deportation—ICE focused primarily on undocumented immigrants with aggravated felony convictions or gang-related convictions. But under the Trump administration’s new policy, released in February, anyone with a conviction or even a “chargeable offense” is a priority for deportation.
“What we wanted to communicate to our families was that we are in solidarity with that family, and we are in solidarity with all families,” Mireles said. “And we are going to stand together if this were to happen again.”
It was initially reported that Avelica-Gonzalez would be deported immediately, but he was granted a temporary stay after the Immigrant Youth Coalition organized a rapid response network to call ICE officials. The most recent report from the coalition states that Avelica-Gonzalez remains in detention.
Meanwhile, the coalition is organizing a new action in response to reports of a similar incident involving another undocumented father, Amado Escobedo, who was allegedly picked up by ICE officials before taking his children to school.
“Father from East LA got picked up this morning as he was about to take his children to school,” the organization posted on Facebook on Friday morning. “He has been living in the US for 16 years and fears going back to Mexico. His family needs him here and deporting him would bring emotional and financial hardship to his family. He ask[s] you do not deport him.”