Jolted awake by the rumble of armored personnel carriers two weeks ago, a young mother says her family still hasn’t recovered.
“The hardest part was the stress it brought,” explains the woman, an undocumented immigrant who asked to remain anonymous, referring to the raid that took place in her Live Oak neighborhood at 4 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 13. “The helicopters woke us up, and now we can’t sleep because we are so scared ICE is coming back for us. My 7-year-old son, who was born here, is afraid to walk around his own neighborhood.”
The operation was the culmination of a five-year investigation aimed at an El Salvadoran gang, which began after a member of the public complained about extortion by the gang. Officials initially said the offensive didn’t target undocumented immigrants at all. The operation immediately followed a weekend of immigration raids around the country, some of them in other sanctuary cities.
“The timing of this blows,” admits Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) Deputy Chief Rick Martinez. “We knew that the timing coincided with immigration raids nationwide and that this was going to muddy the validity of our criminal investigation.”
Years ago, SCPD brought in Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) when they realized families in El Salvador were being threatened with extortion by the international gang MS-13. Last week, the saga erupted into a war of words between the HSI and SCPD.
Trust or Bust
A few weeks ago, local SCPD agents working alongside the HSI team got wind that gang members were planning a local homicide and went before a federal grand jury to secure indictments and proceed as quickly as possible.
City leaders and police all say they participated in the operation only because HSI assured them it was solely a criminal investigation and there was no immigration component. In the aftermath of the militarized raid, they used an HSI press release to assure the public that 12 gang members had been taken off the streets, and that no immigration enforcement activities took place.
Eyewitnesses told a different story. By the afternoon of the operation, community members began reporting that Homeland Security members were doing immigration checks.
When SCPD Deputy Chief Dan Flippo asked the deputy special agent in charge about that claim, the agent denied it. But the next day, at a City Council meeting, enough people complained about immigration enforcement activities to alarm Flippo, who left City Hall and began an aggressive investigation before the meeting even ended.
SCPD learned that after they left the scene, HSI had detained an additional 10 people based on their immigration status—six of them were taken to a facility in San Francisco for the day. Five of the 10 are now wearing GPS monitoring systems, and the rest were given immigration court summons papers.
Police and city leaders were embarrassed and angered by the new information. “If we had known this was going to happen, we would not have participated,” says Martinez.
HSI denied these allegations in a second press release, insisting that SCPD knew about the immigration aspect all along. But SCPD holds firm that the feds misled them. “We were repeating misinformation supplied by HSI,” says Flippo. “We were lied to.”
“This was a total bait and switch,” Martinez explains. “This action violated our trust in HSI and the local community’s trust in us.”
At a press conference on Thursday Feb. 23, SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel went one step further. “We will not collaborate with agencies we do not trust,” he said.
SCPD currently has three open cases with HSI, involving human trafficking, child pornography and narcotics trafficking.
Flippo says the cases have international connections, which extend their scope beyond SCPD’s jurisdiction. But given recent developments, the future of those cases is unclear.
ICE officials failed to provide a response by deadline despite twice assuring GT they would do so.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart decided not to collaborate with HSI on the raids, even though six of the search warrants were within his jurisdiction.
“I have serious concerns about outside agencies coming into Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction with SWAT teams and military-grade equipment and not communicating directly with me or my executive staff about what they are doing,” Hart says.
He stresses the importance of arresting violent criminals, but questions the level of force involved in the activities on the morning of Feb. 13. “Did we really need over 200 officers, helicopters, MRAPs and Bearcats to arrest nine gang members?” Hart asks. He believes the display of force was intended to intimidate counties and cities with sanctuary status.
Hart encourages other local agencies to adopt a stance of non-compliance with similar actions in the future. “We can do these operations without federal assistance,” Hart says. “I have 160 deputies, and we are willing to commit our resources to assist local agencies, rather than see a repeat of what HSI did.”
Sheriff Hart joined forces with Live Oak School District Superintendent Tamyra Taylor and First District County Supervisor John Leopold to manage the fallout in the unincorporated areas of mid-county.
“People all over Live Oak were terrorized when they were woken up by helicopters overhead and armored vehicles rumbling through their neighborhoods,” says Leopold.
Together they coordinated a community meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16, with the goal of giving the community a better idea of what to do if these tactics become more common. They handed out guardianship forms and instructions showing what to do if immigration officials come knocking on their doors. “We wanted to help people understand their rights,” says Leopold.
After the newer immigration-related revelations, SCPD is looking at taking a similar approach. And at the press conference, Vogel said SCPD plans to hold a series of community meetings of its own.
In the past two weeks, Leopold has worried about the impact the raids could have on the relationship between the community, local politicians and law enforcement. “We work hard to build trust with the community,” Leopold explains. “Actions like this drive a wedge between local governments, nonprofits and the communities we serve.”
Nonprofit leaders and neighbors also express concern about fractured trust.
“If, when federal agents show up, local law enforcement will do their bidding, how can they possibly hope to build trust with our community?” asks Robert Solis, who works with Barrios Unidos, a local youth violence prevention organization. “A month ago, we’re at sanctuary meetings where local law enforcement is telling us they will give us a heads up if the feds are in town doing an operation, and then at 4 a.m. we’ve got helicopters in the sky.”
Barrios Unidos founder and executive director Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez says that in his 40 years living in Live Oak, he’s never seen such an unnecessary “macho show of force” from law enforcement.
“It brings fear and it leaves behind trauma,” he adds.
Several immigrants, who asked to remain anonymous, say the raids have affected them deeply.
“We feel alone, like we can’t confide in the police or rely on them to keep us safe,” explains one young woman, holding a child on her hip.
Some immigrants have shared ideas about how local law enforcement agencies can rebuild trust with their communities. One young woman suggested they let community members know about an operation ahead of time. Other residents were more straight-forward.
“It’s simple,” says one middle-aged man. “Don’t cooperate with ICE in this town. In other states, there are cops who won’t work with them. If our local law enforcement will, who are we supposed to confide in?”
Though the actions earlier this month and the revelation of HSI’s alleged misinformation undermined some people’s trust in law enforcement, one positive result appears to be the strengthening of community ties.
“As soon as this happened, we started having community meetings and networking with others who are doing the same, about how to respond if this happens again,” says another Live Oak resident. “This is bringing our community tighter and closer, but also making us more distrustful of outside law enforcement agencies.”