by Dolly Mecham

“Morning - police,” an ICE agent says through the door of a residence in Los Angeles. It's early in the morning and the sun has not come up yet. When the door creaks open, the agent continues. “Good morning, how you doing? I’m a police officer. We’re doing an investigation.”

This exchange was captured on video in 2017 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted what would end up being the first of many nationwide raids across the country. While the coordinated cross-country raids are a product of the Trump Administration, the practice of ICE identifying themselves as Police Officers to gain access to a home or conduct stops in public goes back much further.

A common tactic that accompanies this ruse is under public scrutiny once again. This time, in New York where a man who has been a resident of the city for over 30 years was apprehended in October 2020. Agents waited outside of his job as a chef in Harlem after his wife was confronted at their home. ICE agents identified themselves to her as police at the couples’ apartment and showed her a photo of another man, not her husband. They led her to believe that there was an honest mix-up and if she helped them identify her husband, she would in effect be resolving the case of mistaken identity. After they received the identifying information that they needed from her which included his cell phone number, the agents arrested Fernando Santos-Rodriguez at the restaurant where he was arriving to begin his morning shift.

After the incident, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez was assured by the head of the 34th Precinct that none of their officers were involved, nor did anyone in the NYPD approve ICE agents posing as city cops. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, an ex-city police officer who met with Santo-Rodriguez’s wife and children, addressed the issue in the following days saying, “This is a violation of our law. You cannot state that you are a municipal police official. You cannot violate the law to carry out the law.”

On October 9th 2020, in response to numerous reports of ICE agents posing as police, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a memo to federal authorities and acting director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement demanding that they halt this practice. In the letter, he details several instances in which the tactic has been brought to the attention of his office. An excerpt from the letter reads, “in one case, ICE officers reportedly stated that they were members of a “narcotics squad” and claimed to be investigating unspecified crimes or suspects. In a separate complaint, ICE officers stated that they were police from a particular local precinct, where on at least one occasion they arranged to meet an individual for arrest. In yet another report received by the Mayor’s Office, ICE agents purportedly went to a home where they stated that they were “police” and told the man they sought to arrest that he had to come “to the precinct” where they would “figure this out.”

The letter goes on to address the many ways in which this practice is harmful to the city as it creates a sense of fear amongst citizens and works to erode trust between the city’s immigrant community and local police.  This further impedes local police’s ability to work with victims of crimes as well as witnesses, as many immigrants say they are wary of approaching police if it means calling into question their own legal status or that of their family and friends.

The letter from Mayor de Blasio is not the first of its kind. In 2017, Homeland Security received a similar letterfrom Mayor Eric Garcetti on behalf of the city of Los Angeles where the sentiments were echoed almost exactly. He demanded that ICE stop posing as LAPD immediately as the trust between community members and Los Angeles police was carefully curated. He implied that this ruse helped sow seeds of doubt in trust of local authorities to help protect citizens. In response to that letter, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the western region, Virginia Kice said, "As a standard practice, special agents and officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may initially identify themselves as 'police' during an encounter because it is the universally recognized term for law enforcement and our personnel routinely interact with individuals from around the world." But this argument did not hold water when at least one other federal agency was approached about the practice. According to a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, agents generally identify themselves by saying "DEA, search warrant," if they are knocking on a door, or by describing themselves as agents for the DEA, not as police.

Internal ICE memos show the agency’s willingness to encourage these practices and go as far as to explain that ruses “can run the gamut from announcing that you are with ICE and looking for a person other than the target to adopting the guise of another agency (federal, state, or local) or that of a private entity.”

In April 2020 the ACLU took on the case of a previous DACA recipient, Osny Sorto-Vasquez Kidd, who came here from Honduras with his parents at the age of nine. He has since gone on to become a Certified Nursing Assistant and is married to a U.S. Citizen. According to court documents, “Mr. Kidd was arrested by ICE officers in October 2018 after they used deception to enter his home without a warrant or valid consent and to persuade him to exit his home. Mr. Kidd was subsequently detained at the Adelanto ICE Processing Facility for over two months until his release in December 2018. During that time, Mr. Kidd was separated from his husband and family, who faced severe financial stress and the threat of eviction from their home without Mr. Kidd’s financial support.”

The ACLU suit alleges that instead of obtaining a judicial warrant, ICE officers frequently engage in deceptive tactics to gain “consent” to enter a home or to lure residents outside. ICE officers claim to be the police investigating a fictitious crime and show a picture of a suspect (other than the resident they are there to arrest) whom they claim to be trying to find. In other cases, ICE officers claim to be with “probation” and are there to conduct a home inspection.

These allegations are all in keeping with individual stories and accounts from across the country that show a complete disregard for local police requests to halt these procedures and dismissals of the local representatives who have demanded that ICE put an end to these tactics. With its latest case, the ACLU seeks to establish that impersonating local police or baiting residents into allowing ICE agents into homes under false pretenses is in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and protects against doing so without a warrant.

Warrants, or the lack thereof, are in large part where these schemes arise from. ICE’s inability to acquire warrants for most of the people they attempt to detain leaves them looking for new and deceptive ways to subvert the law. They also count on fear tactics and the hope that most people will not be fully aware of their rights in times of stress.

Here are the facts:

-- You do not have to let ICE or police in unless they have a warrant signed by a judge giving them authorization to enter to arrest someone at your address. Ask them to slip the warrant under the door before you open it. Most often ICE will not have a warrant and will need your consent to come into your home. Opening the door does not mean that you consent. Alternatively, if they ask you to step outside, you are under no obligation to do so.

-- The Immigrant Defense Project says to use phrases such as “I do not want to answer any questions, please leave.” If agents have entered the home, saying “I do not consent to this search” establishes that they are in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Repeat this, especially if they search for or try to photograph documents, even if they are not respecting your rights.

-- Do not give ICE passport or consular documents unless they have a search warrant signed by a judge listing those items. ICE agents often ask people to gather up their travel documents during an arrest. They are only doing this to help the government try to deport you. Say, “I don’t want to bring my documents” or “I don’t want to provide anything.”

-- Tell agents right away if there are children or elderly present in your home, or if you are ill, on medication, nursing or pregnant. If possible, it is important for others present in the home to remember how agents acted and what was said as it may be useful in immigration cases. It is legal for bystanders and loved ones to film ICE making arrests. Do so openly as some states have laws prohibiting secret filming.

Even as President-elect Joe Biden plans sweeping reversals of some of President Trumps more aggressive immigration policies, it is crucial to remember that some of these practices, such as posing as police, were in place before this administration took office and will likely remain through the next one. While organizations like the ACLU are working to see their cases through the court system, and sanctuary cities are making demands of the Federal Government to assess ICE policies, community members can help to prevent these detainments under false pretenses right now.

As ICE agents continue to use deception and intimidation to accomplish their goals, they are most successful when everyday people are not familiar with the agency’s authority or lack thereof. The most efficient and effective way to help friends and neighbors at risk of being targeted by ICE is to know your rights and the rights of others, and to share that information throughout your community.

Dolly Mecham has a B.A. in G.S. Political Science with a focus in the capitalization of the for-profit prison system in the U.S., including ICE detention centers. She is an advocate for undocumented immigrants, immigration reform and justice system reform.