More than a month after controversial immigration raids in Santa Cruz County by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel still wants answers.
Vogel and other officials from the SCPD say they understood the Feb. 13 operation as nothing more than effort to lock up gang members of the El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Upon learning that some undocumented people were detained for their immigration status, and some of them briefly taken into custody, Vogel emphatically stated that if he had known about the â€œimmigration component,â€ the department would not have participated.
Vogel, who says this operation was his first time working with any branch of ICE, spoke with both Congressmember Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) and a staffer from Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) after the raids.
Sarah Davey, press secretary for Panetta, says the congressmember has spoken with ICE director Thomas Homan, as well as two other administrators at the Department of Homeland Security. Panetta has asked them to submit a report, and after they do, heâ€™ll decide whether or not to have an in-person meeting with them, Davey says.
Although ICE released a statement insisting that SCPD knew exactly what it was getting into, Vogel appears to have backup from a neighboring department about what really went down.
Watsonville Police Captain Jorge Zamora remembers the Feb. 9 briefing and assurances from the feds much the way Vogel does. â€œIâ€™ve been in law enforcement 22 years, and to have an agency say this and then do the opposite is really troubling,â€ Zamora says.
So what would have happened if Vogel had decided not to participate in part of that morningâ€™s raid, which stretched from Watsonville to San Mateo County?
The most likely answer, Vogel concedes: pretty much the same thing.
The federal government didnâ€™t need any local cooperation for its offensive. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which had worked the case with Santa Cruz cops for five years, had already secured federal indictments for gang members. They had more than enough manpowerâ€”and equipment, in between helicopters and armored personnel carriersâ€”to kick open a couple extra doors themselves.
After all, when Sheriff Jim Hart declined to participate in issuing warrants in Live Oak as part of the same operation, his departmentâ€™s absence did not prevent HSI from moving forward with raids in unincorporated Santa Cruz County.
But after the bust, on California Politics Podcast, Marisa Lagos of KQED suggested that in the era of President Donald Trumpâ€™s inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, local police leaders in sanctuary cities like Santa Cruz could make a big difference by standing up to the feds. â€œTo have folks like that say, â€˜No, get out of our backyardâ€™ is fascinating, and I think itâ€™s really the beginning of a broader conversation,â€ she said.
Of course itâ€™s tempting to assume, especially in todayâ€™s political climate, that the raids were a feature of the current presidential administration, as Lagos implied on the podcast.
But one officer suggests that might be a stretch, no matter how frightening these times seem to many Americans.
â€œPeople are worried. I am not happy with what I read on the New York Times every morning on my way into work. But Iâ€™ve seen ICE operations before, and they detain and check everyone out,â€ says one anonymous Bay Area police officer, whoâ€™s worked with ICE in the past. â€œThatâ€™s simply standard procedure.â€
Protocol aside, officials from both SCPD and Watsonville Police Department say Homeland Security agents repeatedly assured them this wouldnâ€™t be an immigration raid. Vogel says he wants to find out if the feds simply lied to the faces of local officers or if orders changed in the four days after they were briefed. â€œThe presidentâ€™s been giving an awful lot of executive orders,â€ Vogel says.
â€œIt couldâ€™ve been a change in direction,â€ Vogel adds. â€œEverybodyâ€™s got a boss. Maybe somebody in D.C. all of a sudden decided this is an immigration operation and nobody bothered to tell us, which is the problem really.â€
Whether or not a similar operation could have happened before, the stakes certainly feel higher under an administration that has pledged to ramp up deportations. The consequences of being an undocumented immigrant with a new GPS ankle-monitor could be different going forward.
Zamora and Vogel both struggle to offer many specifics on what exactly HSI agents explained when they said there would be no immigration component to the raids: Were the feds promising not to ask anyone about their immigration status? Did they assure officers they wouldnâ€™t take people to an offsite facility in San Francisco, as six people later were? Could this have been simply a mix-up of words?
With a few weeks now gone by, the details are difficult to pin down.
â€œWhen you ask, â€˜How specific were they?â€™ man, I wish Iâ€™d had a recorder,â€ explains Zamora, who says that no residents from any of the Watsonville raids were among those detained for immigration reasons. â€œWhat I can say is that the way things happened were not the way anyone in that meeting imagined them.â€
Zamora also says that before the meeting an HSI official had called him and was â€œpretty clearâ€ that he and his colleagues werenâ€™t interested in immigration. Reassured, Zamora responded by telling the official that the department would not be able to participate in any immigration sweep.
Vogel says that immediately after the Feb. 9 briefing, he and his deputy chiefs brought the HSI special agents upstairs for a smaller meeting, where Vogel and his colleagues impressed on the feds the importance of Santa Cruzâ€™s status as a sanctuary city. And after the morning raids, Vogel says he and Deputy Chief Dan Flippo started hearing that people were wearing ICE gear and checking the immigration status of people. So they approached the special agent in charge to ask him about it. At the time the agent brushed it off as untrue.
â€œItâ€™s difficult because thereâ€™s a lot of work that went into this,â€ Zamora says. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of collateral damage nowâ€”not only between the local communities and law enforcement, but also between local law enforcement and the feds.â€
The Santa Cruz City Council is in the process of reviewing its â€œResolution to Maintain Trust and Safety for Local Immigrantsâ€ and crafting an ordinance to clarify the cityâ€™s procedures on federal immigration law. At a Feb. 28 City Council meeting, Vogel mentioned that SCPD has had an HSI agent use office space in Santa Cruz while working on investigations since 2009. Vogel plans to â€œessentially serve the homeland security agent with eviction papers,â€ he said at the evening meeting, a gathering that felt, at times, catharticâ€”with clapping and cheeringâ€”and at other times, more tense.
â€œThe people who were arrested were not criminals,â€ says Jose Lucas Escobar, an El Salvadoran immigrant whose daughter was among those briefly taken for immigration processing. â€œThey work very hard.â€