Agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 20 foreign nationals with criminal histories in Santa Barbara County as part of a four-day sweep throughout Southern California that netted 244 arrests. That sweep — dubbed “an enforcement surge” by ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice — concluded last Thursday night. Fifteen of the arrests, Kice said, were made in Santa Maria; the others took place in Mission Hills, Lompoc, and Guadalupe. Kice said all but four of the arrests were filed “administratively,” not criminally. According to ICE confidentiality procedures, no names are released in administrative detentions. She disclosed that a 30-year-old Mexican male was arrested in Mission Hills with prior convictions for possession and sale of controlled substances and prostitution. Likewise, she said a 38-year-old Mexican male was arrested in Santa Maria with prior convictions for participating with a criminal street gang, felony spousal abuse, writing false checks, and resisting a police officer. Seven of those arrested in Santa Barbara County had domestic violence convictions, five for serious drug offenses.
What Kice described as last week’s “tactical enforcement action” comes as public debate over undocumented immigrants not deported in a timely fashion continues to boil over. GOP Presidential contender Donald Trump continues to gain traction by inveighing the essential criminality of “illegal immigrants,” even though the weight of scholarly opinion remains stacked solidly against him. Santa Maria became caught in the rhetorical crossfire a few weeks ago after Mexican immigrant Victor Martinez raped, strangled, and beat 64-year-old resident Marilyn Pharis, who died nine days later. Martinez attacked Pharis just four days after being released from Santa Barbara County Jail, where he’d been held on possession charges for dirk-and-dagger as well as methamphetamine.
Although ICE conducts such raids twice a year, it’s hard not to see a connection. Certainly, this year’s exercise was far more aggressive, catching far more suspects than ever before. In addition, the criminal records of those caught were more extensive than in years past. Targeted in the sweep were immigrants implicated in what ICE terms Priority I and Priority II offenses, which translates into anything from serious, violent felonies to multiple DUIs. Of the 244 picked up throughout southern California last week, many have already been deported. Those not yet removed are held in one of four ICE facilities throughout the state.
Immigrant rights activist Hazel Davalos, representing the organization CAUSE, declined to comment on the specifics of the 20 caught in North County, but added, “Most deportations from Santa Barbara have involved people not charged with criminal offenses or who were very low- level offenders. This is from ICE’s own statistics.” Davalos expressed concern that as such raids intensify, immigrants would become less trustful of local police, and the less immigrants shared information, the less safe their communities would become. To the extent Santa Maria police officers are perceived as working closely with ICE, local immigrants would be reluctant to report crimes. “We need to strike the right balance,” she said.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said that the criminal element picked up by ICE preyed primarily upon the immigrant community and disputed the contention such law enforcement actions discourage immigrants from cooperating with law enforcement. “All I can say is we’re still getting the calls for service,” said Martin. “I make it clear to my officers our focus is not on the hard-working people in the fields but on those who are breaking the law.”