The opening of a federal immigration enforcement office in Santa Maria in 2015 raised fears of increased deportation and racial targeting, but officials tried to calm the alarm, saying the decades-old office in Lompoc was dilapidated and that the new facility simply replaced that one. The soon-to-be president’s campaign speeches denigrating illegal immigrants ratcheted fears higher, but immigration officials insist that the only people who get deported deserve to be. And “ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] does not indiscriminately stop and/or apprehend anyone off the street,” said Lori Haley, an ICE spokesperson.
The Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) part of ICE is responsible for apprehending people who have come into the United States without valid entry and travel documents, such as a visa and passport. ICE has a wider set of tasks, Haley said, which covers public safety and national-security issues including human and child trafficking; guns, money, and drugs; and counterfeit merchandise, cultural treasures, and child porn that cross U.S. borders. The ERO officers train at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, also known as the ICE Academy. Many agents are bilingual. Prisoners are transported in marked vans, but field officers drive unmarked cars.
ICE’s Los Angeles Field Office has deportation statistics for the seven counties it oversees: 6,722 individuals in 2016 were repatriated, of whom 5,517 were convicted criminals and 1,205 noncriminals. ICE does not quantify statistics by county, said Virginia Kice, the region’s communications director. For inmates in Santa Barbara County Jail, legal status is not a part of county law enforcement or court procedures, but if fingerprint information turns up an existing deportation order, Kice said, ERO officers receive notice. ICE also keeps a work space at County Jail, said Kelly Hoover, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.
Deportation hearings come under the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review. They take place in Los Angeles, and those prisoners tend to be held in Orange County, said Kathryn Mattingly, a press secretary with the DOJ in D.C. Angie Junck, a supervising attorney with San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center who works with Santa Barbara advocates for immigrants, said detainees may also be held at Adelanto, L.A., San Diego, or even Arizona if their deportation process is prolonged.
Upon arrest, ICE gives immigrants an “alien registration number” to identify them for both DOJ and ICE; that number tracks a prisoner through the federal system rather than a name or Social Security number. The hearings are before a civil administrative court, not criminal, said Mattingly, and detainees have “a right to representation at no expense to the government,” and “statutory rights such as the right to have a reasonable opportunity to examine the evidence against them, present evidence, and cross-examine witnesses.” The judge will weigh evidence such as criminal convictions, as well as the strength of their family ties, when making his ruling. Appeal of that decision can be made within 30 days to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
It is too unknown what will change in ICE’s operations after the new administration takes office to speculate, Kice said. “It also depends on who becomes secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” At deadline, retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, who has been nominated for the Homeland position, testified Tuesday before the Senate committee. Noted for his tough stance on immigration, his confirmation is all but certain. As Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota described the hearings, with no small amount of irony: “It was a lovefest.”