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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
LABOR UNION: Day workers wait at the Orchard Supply Hardware on San Carlos and Royal Avenue.

Tourist Trap

Homeland Security sets up a new San Jose office to apprehend immigrant fugitives

By Raj Jayadev

ELOY, Ariz., is nothing like San Jose. More than a thousand miles away, located in the middle of the desert, it is a blazingly hot, desolate and unremarkable town roughly an hour-and-a-half south of Phoenix. It's so secluded that Greyhound doesn't even go there.

Eloy is host to one of the country's largest immigration detention centers. And now, a week after the largest immigration enforcement operation in California history, the distance from San Jose and Eloy already seems significantly shorter.

An estimated 436 people were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from the Bay Area, in what amounted to a sort of coming-out party for ICE's new San Jose Fugitive Operation Team (FOT).

Many of those who were picked up are likely headed to Eloy, and immigrant communities locally are on notice—the South Bay is in a new era of immigration enforcement.

ICE was established in 2003 as the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. In order to expand ICE's field efforts, it created Fugitive Operation Teams to locate, arrest and remove "fugitives" from the United States. ICE defines a fugitive as "an alien who has failed to report to a Detention and Removal Officer after receiving notice to do so." 

In 2003, there were eight teams created nationwide. By 2007, the first year since its inception that ICE reported a decline in its case backlog, there were 75 teams. As of Aug. 1, ICE's case backlog was just over 570,000, and the division had 95 Fugitive Operation Teams. ICE expects to have over 100 by the end of year. They have arrested 26,945 people so far in 2008.

Craig Myer, ICE's assistant field office director in San Francisco, says the recent three-week enforcement "surge" and first assignment of the San Jose Fugitive Operation Team was a major success.

"To have a team in San Jose means we can be out there more often, and have more flexibility to cover Northern California," Myers says. While Myers says they were not able to track the number of arrests specifically in San Jose, he estimates there are around 4,000 to 6,000 people locally that may be targeted by their efforts. The large number, Myers says, is why ICE in June of this year located a team in San Jose.

Will the Surge Work?

Virginia Kice, ICE's Western Regional Communications director, cannot say how large the San Jose ICE team is, but a 2007 report from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) says a team typically has seven members. The report also points to significantly climbing arrest goals per team.

The goal of each team in 2003 was 125 people, by 2006 that number jumped to 1,000 per team. That jump is consistent with the Office of Detention and Removal Operations Strategic Plan, "Endgame," indicating that the national aim of the FOT is to "eliminate the backlog of fugitive aliens by the end of 2012."

Despite a sharp escalation of arrests, the OIG report documented several critiques of the Fugitive Operation Team model. Among other conclusions the 2007 report states: "Fugitive alien apprehensions reported did not accurately reflect the teams' activities. ... [T]he teams performed duties unrelated to fugitive operations, contrary to Office of Detention and Removal Operations Policy."

The review points to ways the FOT can improve, given their aggressive goals, and notes their case logs may be "growing at a rate that exceeds the teams' ability to apprehend." Considering that there are now an estimated 12 million undocumented people in the United States, according to the Pew Institute's Hispanic Center, the potential backlog of cases could be enormous.

Angie Junk, staff attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), is not surprised by the new San Jose Fugitive Operation Team or its surge strategy, but says immigrant communities in the South Bay now need to be particularly vigilant in protecting their rights.

"These enforcement increases are going to create an atmosphere of fear and terror, and will threaten due process for all in the community," Junk says. The ILRC, based in San Francisco, has created "know your rights" cards (which explain due process rights such as the right to attorney). The group has also established community raid networks and triage centers to help people deal with enforcement issues, and help families respond to an arrest.

"ICE has a history of violating people's rights by racially profiling, threatening and using unlawful interrogation techniques while picking up their targets," Junk says.

Kice points out that Fugitive Operation Teams do not conduct mass sweeps, but rather have individual targets.

However, Junk says that the teams often arrest whoever they may come upon during an operation. Myers confirms that this is common practice, and calls these actions "collateral arrests."

"If we go to a place, we are going to check everyone's identifying documents, and enforce the law," he says.

That accounts for a discrepancy of numbers. In last week's surge, ICE reported 436 arrests, and said that 185 of those were immigration fugitives. The rest, a significant majority, were collateral apprehensions or individuals that were not initially targeted by the FOT.

For now, Myers says, there is no active relationship between the federal agency and local law enforcement.


 "We notified them of our operation for courtesy, but they did not assist," he says. When asked if ICE will be employing more statewide surge tactics, given the large number of arrests, he says that he does not know of any upcoming plans.

Either way, he expects the new San Jose Fugitive Operations Team to be busy.

"While the big enforcement operations get a lot of media responses," he says, "we are out there everyday, trying to meet our goal."

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