ICE Agents’ Ruse Operations
Guatemalans in the Boston area are seeing spies infiltrating factories, buses with tinted windows taking away unidentifiable co-workers, and men with guns grabbing their neighbors. For these survivors of state violence, it’s a traumatic reminder of the very thing they thought they had left behind. Twenty-six-year-old Julia, arrested in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid, said, “If they are taking children away and everything, then for me, that’s a second war.” She told her story in interviews with Professors Brinton Lykes and Dan Kanstroom of Boston College’s Post-Deportation Human Rights Project.
Thirteen of the fifteen Guatemalans in the town of Chimaltenango who had organized a group on behalf of loved ones picked up by ICE in the US could not locate them. These Guatemalans, in meetings with Lykes and Kanstroom, also spontaneously brought up the decades-long civil war that ended in 1996, during which 200,000 were killed and thousands vanished. A woman who lost her son and husband in the war and who was desperate to find her grandson asked the two professors, “Are they being disappeared?”
The US government is not sending out death squads. But the Guatemalans are onto something. According to an unnamed ICE official responding to questions sent by e-mail, ICE agents regularly impersonate civilians and rely on other tricks, some of which are illegal, in order to arrest longtime US residents who have no criminal history. I found incidents in which ICE agents posed as OSHA inspectors, insurance agents and religious workers. The effect is to corrode trust in the government, neighbors–and even Mormons.
Last summer, a woman came to the office of Marina Lowe, an ACLU attorney in Salt Lake City, saying she believed that ICE agents dressing as Mormon missionaries had been to her house. Lowe’s client noticed that the missionaries lacked the black name-tags she’d always seen them wear, and behaved in other ways inconsistent with missionary protocol, including entering her home while her husband was absent. After she confirmed that he lived there, they left. The next day, ICE agents arrived and arrested her husband.
Lowe realized that the woman’s husband had been in the sights of ICE undercover agents when she called a phone number the woman gave her. The woman told Lowe that a man purporting to be an insurance investigator had left the number with her earlier. The man who picked up the phone when Lowe called told her he worked for the federal government. When Lowe asked why the federal government had an interest in insurance, the caller admitted to being an ICE agent. As for the missionaries, Lowe said that a colleague of hers described similar ICE missionary disguises, reported in community meetings in Utah County, about an hour south.
When Aaron Tarin, the immigration attorney now representing the husband of the woman who came to see Lowe, called the local ICE office, the ICE supervisor’s exonerating evidence against the accusation was that such an action would be “political suicide” and “stupid.” Tarin, himself a Mormon, said, “If this gets out it could have a catastrophic effect on missionaries’ work in Utah, and it can really put missionaries in danger. Aliens could get hostile and offensive.”
In response to a question about whether it was consistent with government policy for ICE agents to impersonate religious workers, the anonymously written ICE e-mail explained that impersonating religious officials is part of “ruse operations” and justified this as a “tool that enhances officer safety.”
But “this is unconstitutional. It is a direct interference with the First Amendment rights of people to freely practice their religion,” said Jennie Pasquarella, an ACLU staff attorney in Los Angeles, who cited a 1989 Ninth Circuit decision holding that it was unconstitutional for federal agents to infiltrate churches in their efforts to thwart the sanctuary movement. Among the attorneys suing the government, she pointed out, was Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
A ruse operation about five years ago still rankles Kentucky attorney Julia Thorne. Thorne received a phone call from a man saying he was with a courier service, wanting to confirm her address. Shortly after that, one of her clients, a Polish horse teaser living in the area since 1993, received a call from a man who identified himself as “Bill, the new guy in Julia’s office” and asked the client to stop by Thorne’s office and sign some papers–despite the fact that Thorne works alone. Two ICE agents were waiting and arrested him in the lobby. Thorne, eight floors above, had no idea until she received a call from her client in ICE custody.
When Thorne complained to the Louisville ICE office, she was told, “No, your client’s making that up. We said we were a courier service.” When she asked, “How did he happen to show up in my lobby when you were there?” they said it didn’t happen.
Thorne worried about the effect on her practice: “What if this gets out? People will say, ‘Don’t go to that attorney. ICE stands in her lobby waiting for clients to come in,'” but didn’t pursue it. “If I gave them too much trouble they could go through my client list. Who knows what they would do? They’re lying through their teeth, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m powerless because they could hurt people that I’m supposed to be taking care of. I felt so violated that they would use me to get my clients.” (Thorne now works for the Presbyterian Church and no longer has this concern.)
The anonymously written ICE e-mail stated that impersonating attorneys is also consistent with ICE “ruse operations,” but claimed this particular ruse is not used routinely. Ruses, the official wrote, “prevent violators from fleeing, thereby allowing for a safe arrest that does not place the violator, the arresting officers or innocent bystanders at risk.”
At other times, immigration law enforcement agents deceptively rely on the authority of their uniforms to conduct interrogations even though people aren’t obligated to answer. On August 31, 2009, Border Patrol agents marched onto a Greyhound bus in Twin Falls, Idaho, 450 miles from Canada, and pulled off for questioning “only those who looked brown,” Aaron Tarin explained, after which they “unlawfully interrogated them and locked them up in a facility thousands of miles away from home.”
According to Mark Qualia, a Border Patrol agent and spokesperson, agents are routinely conducting “transportation checks” across the country. He mentioned Abilene, Texas (400 miles from Mexico), and Albuquerque, New Mexico (266 miles from Mexico), as other examples. Qualia justified these checks by comparing a bus station in Twin Falls, Idaho, to the St. Louis airport as a destination for international flights. He said that the sites are selected based on reports of “undocumented aliens living in this location,” not recent arrivals. Spokesperson Mike Emge said Border Patrol agents in Twin Falls picked buses for inspection that were scheduled to be in the station for at least thirty minutes.
These actions are “clearly illegal,” said Nancy Morawetz, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University Law School. She explained that border patrol agents are only authorized to search for people who have “just entered,” adding, “It’s bad enough they’re doing this 100 miles from the border, but I haven’t heard of them doing this 450 miles from the border.”
Under the Obama administration, ICE is moving away from workplace raids, popular among anti-immigrant activists, and relying more heavily on targeted stealth operations. Lykes, the Boston researcher, explained that this decision may seem more politically palatable, but the effect is to “send the operations underground: the door-to-door arrests send a shudder through the immigrant community, but without the dominant community finding out.”