An operation by federal immigration agents in Detroit set off protests from Latino and church groups on Wednesday after the officers stopped two illegal immigrants as they were dropping off their children at school.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement followed both immigrants, who are from Mexico, as they left their homes in southwest Detroit on Tuesday morning, officials from the agency said. Both men had children in their vehicles.
One of the men, Jorge Hernandez, said he was pulled over by agents in unmarked cars across the street from his 4-year-old daughter’s school, the Manuel Reyes Vistas Nuevas Head Start center in southwest Detroit. Mr. Hernandez was questioned but eventually released.
The other man, Hector Orozco Villa, told immigrant advocates that he had been detained by agents near the elementary school of two of his children, Cesar Chavez Academy, a few blocks from the Head Start center. Mr. Orozco remains in the custody of the agency, which is known as ICE.
The presence of the immigration agents has spread alarm among arriving parents and children in the Latino neighborhood, school officials said. More than 100 people rallied on Wednesday to protest, according to a report in The Detroit News, saying the immigration agency had broken an earlier promise to avoid arrests near schools and other community gathering points.
“It is very alarming to me to have this happen during the rush hour of people taking their children to school,” said Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic state representative who attended the rally. “We are really worried about the impact on these United States citizen children.” Several of Mr. Hernandez’s and Mr. Orozco’s children were born in the United States.
The incident revealed the raw sensitivities in some immigrant communities as federal agents are required to carry out the increasingly complex deportation policy of the Obama administration. Agents have been instructed to focus on capturing illegal immigrants who are convicted criminals or repeat immigration violators, and to avoid detaining those who have committed no serious crimes and have strong family ties to the United States. Determining which individuals fall in either category has been a difficult balance for ICE to maintain while carrying out the directive.
After investigating, immigration officials higher up said that the officers’ actions were consistent with agency policies. “After a thorough review of facts, the arrest of a priority target today in the Detroit metro area adhered to, and was in full compliance of, the stated policies and procedures of the agency,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the agency. “This includes ICE policy regarding enforcement actions at or near sensitive locations.”
The ICE policy on sensitive locations is to ensure that enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches unless (a) exigent circumstances exist, (b) other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location as described in the “Exceptions to the General Rule” section of the policy memo, or (c) prior approval is obtained.
Immigration officials said agents had moved to arrest Mr. Orozco because he had a criminal conviction in 2008 for driving under the influence and had also returned to the United States after being formally deported, which is a felony. The officials said that Mr. Orozco had been detained four blocks from the Chavez Academy.
While immigration officers have affirmed that this is in line with ICE memo on sensitive locations, the exigent circumstances by which the arrest could be made focus on four things:
1) the enforcement action involves a national security or terrorism matter
2) there is an imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm to any person or property
3) the enforcement action involves the immediate arrest or pursuit of a dangerous felon, terrorist suspect, or any other individual(s) that present an imminent danger to public safety; or
4) there is an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to an ongoing criminal case.
Based on the above exigent circumstances, it is not quite clear how Mr. Orozco’s arrest is in line with the memo considering how dropping his kid off to school does not pose an imminent danger to public safety nor an imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm to any person or property. Committing a felony does not mean all of one’s actions are characterized as being felonious. Given how flawed that logic is, the immigration officer’s conclusion was wrong to assert that his arrest is within the meaning of the ICE Memo on sensitive locations.
With respect to Mr. Hernandez, the officials said that Mr. Hernandez was not a primary target of their operation, but that he had two convictions for driving with an expired license. In an interview, Mr. Hernandez said his 7-year-old son had also been in his vehicle, along with his wife, when he was stopped. He said his son had become distraught and said, in English, to the officers: “Please don’t take my dad. We want to go to school.” Again, following the ICE memo on sensitive locations and exigent circumstances, Mr. Hernandez does not meet any of the exigent circumstances to even be approached. The immigration officers were wrong to approach and question Mr. Hernandez when he dropped his son off at school.
The episode was reminiscent of a similar confrontation last year when immigrant rights organizations accused immigration agents in Detroit of patrolling near schools and, in at least one instance, setting off a panic. The agency determined that agents had violated no policies but clarified its guidelines for operations near schools. While the agency may feel their agents violated no policies, the community is right in feeling alarmed with what happened. Hopefully, with the outpouring of protest by the community, ICE will be more mindful and sensitive to handling any detentions by schools or churches where it meets their own memo policy more strictly.