Santa Cruz Police: ICE Lied to Us About Immigration Arrests

Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel says federal officials lied when they said a Feb. 13 joint operation ostensibly targeting gang members would not include immigration-related arrests. (Santa Cruz Police/Flickr)

Santa Cruz police say they were misled by the Department of Homeland Security into helping make immigration arrests during a raid on suspected gang members.

Police Chief Kevin Vogel and Assistant Chief Dan Flippo said at a news conference on Thursday that federal officials lied when they assured them a Feb. 13 joint operation would not include immigration-related arrests during a raid on the El Salvador-based gang known by the names MS-13 and Mara Salvatrucha.

Flippo said he didn't learn of the immigration arrests until the next night, when dozens of protesters disrupted a City Council meeting to voice their displeasure.

Vogel said the department no longer trusts the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and will no longer work with the agency.

"I want to underscore that we would never have participated or cooperated in this operation if we had known that it included immigration enforcement," Vogel said. "As a result of this betrayal of trust, we will be taking a long and hard look about whether we will cooperate with this federal agency in the future.

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"We can't cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust."

Agents arrested 10 people allegedly associated with the gang, some of whom have been connected to four Santa Cruz homicides, the chief said.

Flippo said the gang-related arrests at about a dozen residences were the culmination of a five-year investigation launched when a Santa Cruz resident called police to complain about gang members extorting local businesses.

He said his department enlisted the help of DHS because of the gang's notoriety and global reach, and that the raids were made because it appeared gang members were planning another killing.

But Flippo also said 10 or more additional people who agents encountered at the residences were detained solely on immigration charges.

Federal immigration officials pushed back hard against the assertion that they duped Santa Cruz police.

They also denied that the aggressive immigration approach of President Donald Trump's administration had anything to do with their plans or actions.

"We worked closely with the Santa Cruz Police Department over the last five years on this case," ICE spokesman James Schwab said. "Allegations that the agency secretly planned an immigration enforcement action in hopes there would be new political leadership that would allow for an alleged 'secret' operation to take place are completely false, reckless and disturbing."

Schwab acknowledged that 11 people were detained on immigration charges, but said police had agreed before the raid that some foreign nationals might be briefly held until their identities and case histories could be determined.

Schwab said that's exactly what happened, and 10 of the 11 immigrants were released. One of them remains in custody because of his criminal history and possible ties to the gang investigation.

"The chief acknowledged this possibility and it was agreed that no foreign nationals would enter the Santa Cruz Police Department's facility or their police vehicles," Schwab said.

Here is ICE's full statement on the operation:

On Feb. 13, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) led a multi-agency operation involving the execution of federal search and arrest warrants at 11 locations as part of an ongoing criminal investigation targeting alleged criminal activity by suspected members of a notorious transnational gang. The operation was the culmination of a 5-year investigation which resulted in the arrest of 10 criminal organization members on federal criminal charges in Santa Cruz, Daly City, and Watsonville. Additionally, during the enforcement action, authorities encountered 11 illegal aliens at the operational locations who were detained initially on administrative immigration violations due to their association with suspected members of a transnational street gang. Ultimately, 10 of those individuals were released. One remains in agency custody at this time due to his criminal history and possible ties to the ongoing investigation. At no time during the operation were minors were left unattended at any of the enforcement locations.

Several days prior to the operation, our Special Agent-in-Charge office notified the Santa Cruz Chief of Police that any non-targeted foreign nationals encountered during the enforcement actions at the search and arrest locations would be held briefly until determinations could be made about their identities and case histories. The Chief acknowledged this possibility and it was agreed that no foreign nationals would enter the Santa Cruz Police Department’s facility or their police vehicles.

We worked closely with the Santa Cruz Police Department over the last five years on this case. Allegations that the agency secretly planned an immigration enforcement action in hopes there would be new political leadership that would allow for an alleged “secret” operation to take place are completely false, reckless, and disturbing.

Ryan L. Spradlin, the Special Agent-in-Charge in San Francisco, has stated that “it’s unfortunate when politics get intertwined with a well planned and executed public safety operation. When politics undermine law and order, the only winners are the criminals.” Spradlin publicly reiterated that he understands the concerns of community members and the sensitive nature of the operation, but that it’s a sad day for the law enforcement community when some continue to make statements because they are worried about their jobs, while our special agents remain focused on doing theirs. “I told the Deputy Chief that rather than disparaging this operation, the community of Santa Cruz should understand that they are safer because of it,” said Spradlin.

Law enforcement operations are fluid, and unforeseen circumstances often arise that must be assessed and addressed on site. The goal of this operation was to arrest known members of a violent criminal organization and disrupt the dangerous activities of this organization. All of the arrests were conducted in accordance with agency policies and consistent with the special agents’ authorities under federal law.

Santa Cruz is a sanctuary city, which prohibits its police from cooperating with federal authorities investigating immigration violations.

The police chief and mayor each apologized to city residents for unwittingly violating the sanctuary policy of Santa Cruz.

"I'm deeply disturbed and upset," Mayor Cynthia Chase said. "I'm outraged."

This post includes reporting by Paul Elias of The Associated Press.

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