San Francisco Chronicle

‘Ruses’ common by ICE, says suit allowed by judge

- By Bob Egelko Reach Bob Egelko: begelko @sfchronicl­; Twitter: @BobEgelko

Federal immigratio­n agents are not police officers. But a judge says U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t has acknowledg­ed that it trains its agents to identify themselves as police, wear police badges and use “ruses” to enter someone’s home or get them to step outdoors without a warrant.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright of Los Angeles did not say whether those policies are illegal. But he ruled Tuesday that immigrant-rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union could proceed with a class-action suit seeking to prohibit ICE from using those tactics, at least in seven Southern California counties.

“This is a practice that ICE utilizes across the U.S., to use ruses and identify as police officers,” said ACLU attorney Stephanie Padilla. “We believe this violates the Fourth Amendment,” which protects individual­s from what the Constituti­on describes as unreasonab­le searches and seizures.

The lawsuit quoted an ICE regional spokespers­on, who told National Public Radio in 2017 that “as a standard practice, special agents and officers ... may initially identify themselves as ‘police’ during an encounter.”

The suit also quoted a 2005 ICE memo telling agents that the “ruses” they could employ include “adopting the guise of another agency (federal, state, or local) or that of a private entity.”

Padilla said ICE agents are legally required to obtain judicial warrants before entering someone’s home to arrest an undocument­ed immigrant, and evade that requiremen­t by posing as police or telling stories that induce people to step outside.

Wright cited a 2018 incident, described in the lawsuit, in which an ICE agent went to an apartment and identified herself as a police detective searching for a dangerous criminal who was threatenin­g the residents.

Agents were allowed in, didn’t find the immigrant they were looking for, but eventually reached him by phone and induced him to meet them based on the same fictitious threat, the judge said. They then held him for deportatio­n.

“They encourage officers to use ruses, like saying they’re looking for someone else, then getting someone to step outside their home” and hold them for deportatio­n, said Lizbeth Abeln, deportatio­n defense director for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

In another incident last week, she said, an ICE agent posing as a private citizen went to a home in Ontario (San Bernardino County), expressed interest in a car parked outside, then arrested the car’s owner as soon as he stepped out of the house.

“Now community members don’t trust the police because they think they’re ICE officers,” Abeln said.

After being induced to leave their homes and arrested, immigrants are typically moved to distant locations where they are separated from their families and generally have difficulty finding a lawyer, said Carl Bergquist, general counsel of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, a participan­t in the lawsuit.

“We work with the community to foster trust between local police and the immigrant community in order to deal with crime. We want to make sure people respond to police,” Bergquist said. “They take advantage of that trust. They actually help to break that trust.”

ICE did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment.

Wright said ICE did not deny that it trained its officers to identify themselves as police, but instead argued that the practice was legal because the agents are law enforcemen­t officers.

The agency told the judge that “ruses” protected both officers and the public by preventing violators from avoiding arrest and fleeing — though those are people accused only of violating immigratio­n laws.

In Los Angeles, Wright said, the agents wear an ICE badge and a police badge on the front of their uniform, and insignia from both agencies on the back.

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