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.Ambushed: Contra Costa County Law Enforcement Sets Up Surprise Stings To Help Federal Immigration Agents Arrest and Deport Immigrants

"Local law enforcement should not be involved in these kinds of activities."

Chris Kim thought it was unusual last year when the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office called him in for an unscheduled meeting. But he showed up — and walked into a trap.

The 38-year-old Hayward resident was convicted of possession of stolen property in 2015. But in-lieu of jail, he opted for the sheriff’s custody alternative program, which allowed him to stay in his apartment and keep his two jobs, one at a hotel, the other a warehouse. All he had to do was wear an ankle monitor and meet in person with a case worker in the sheriff’s office every few weeks.

But Kim says that when he showed up for the meeting at the county’s Custody Alternative Facility in Martinez last June, Specialist Liz Culley ushered him to a back room, not the cubicle where they usually met. When she opened the door, his heart jumped: Several Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stepped forward and arrested him.

“They’re here to deport you,” he remembers Culley saying.

The ICE agents handcuffed Kim and drove him to the massive, block-shaped Department of Homeland Security building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. Later, he was shipped to the Yuba County Jail, where the local sheriff contracts with ICE to hold thousands of people facing deportation.

According to Kim, an ICE agent told him that he “could try to fight it,” but that he would likely be deported because the government had been looking for him for a long time.

All the while, he kept thinking that they’d got the wrong person, that this had to be a mistake. Kim came to the United States from Korea decades ago, when he was four years old. He is a lawful, permanent resident allowed to live and work indefinitely in the U.S. He can’t speak or write in Korean with proficiency. Most of his family also lives in the United States. If he were sent to Korea, he believes it would be akin to cultural banishment.

“Many of us have been here all our lives,” Kim told the Express. “It wouldn’t be wise to send us back. We would have no support.”

Many wrongly assume the Obama administration was friendly to undocumented immigrants. But the United States has deported hundreds of thousands of people annually under his presidency.

Under the federal Priority Enforcement Program, local police work with ICE when non-citizens are arrested. Their fingerprints are shared through an FBI database. And, if ICE identifies the person as undocumented, they issue an “immigration hold” to keep the person in jail for an extra 48 hours, so that agents can arrest them — regardless of whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.

Critics say this creates distrust between immigrant communities and local cops. In response, California legislators passed the TRUST Act, which took effect in 2014 and prohibits local agencies from responding to immigration holds — except in the case of serious crimes.

And Bay Area counties such as San Francisco, Alameda, and Santa Clara have taken extra steps to limit contact with ICE, arguing that state officials have no authority or responsibility to enforce federal civil laws.

But an investigation by the Express reveals that the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department have been working closely with ICE to locate, arrest, and deport people.

These agencies deny that they are breaking any laws. But records obtained by the Express show that sheriff’s employees and probation officers went to extraordinary lengths to assist federal ICE agents in carrying out investigations and arrests. In some cases, probation officers even initiated contact with ICE and advocated for certain people to be deported.

“Local law enforcement should not be involved in these kinds of activities,” argued Saira Hussain, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, which represents immigrants facing deportation. She and others described Contra Costa County’s tactics as ambushes that trick people into surprise ICE arrests, and then deportation.

Kim says his arrest by ICE nearly ruined his life. “It was devastating,” he said. “I’m starting from scratch again.”

A ‘Kafkaesque’ Situation

Kim’s recent trouble with ICE stemmed back to a crime he committed in Georgia in 1995, when he was eighteen-years-old. After watching a movie that depicted a robbery, he and five friends decided on the spur of the moment to stick-up a store with a fake gun. He spent two years in prison for the offense, and his status as a permanent resident was jeopardized. As a result of the felony, ICE initiated a case to deport him.

But Kim received a pardon from the state of Georgia in 2005. He believed this put an end to the immigration case that was triggered against him for the robbery.

In 2006, he moved to California and had no further contact with law enforcement — until last year, when he was convicted of possessing stolen property, cell phones that had been taken from a retail store. He was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor and enrolled in the sheriff’s custody alternative program.

But while under supervision of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department, employees shared his information with ICE, and federal agents closed in, working to deport him based on the crime that he had been pardoned for in Georgia.

While detained, he contacted his employers and tried to get them to hold his jobs. But the warehouse where he worked closed, and the hotel was forced to lay him off and hire someone else. Unable to earn an income while incarcerated, he says that he ran out of money and fell behind on rent. He says his landlord charged him a late payment penalty, and that his girlfriend ended up selling his car to pay the fee — but he still lost the apartment.

Kim’s attorney, Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus, was eventually able to have the deportation case dismissed because Kim had been pardoned in 2005. The problem was that his attorney in Georgia never took the extra step of having the deportation order taken off his record.

But Kim and his attorney say what happened next was shocking. Just before he was released by ICE, guards told him to switch uniforms because he was going to be sent to a different jail in Contra Costa. The sheriff’s office there wanted him arrested for violating the terms of the custody alternative program.

Jon Rodney, of the advocacy group California Immigrant Policy Center, says Contra Costa County and ICE put Kim in a “Kafkaesque” situation. First, the sheriff’s office handed him over to ICE, then later claimed that it was Kim who had violated the terms of the custody alternative program. They said this was because Kim didn’t check in with his sheriff’s specialist. But that was only due to the fact that he was being held in jail by ICE.

The Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on Kim’s case. But according to interviews with immigrants and legal-aid groups, there are others like Kim who have been lured to the sheriff’s office in Martinez, under the pretense of a routine check-in, and then tricked and handed over to deportation officers.

Another Surprise Arrest

David Jones came to the U.S. when he was eleven. His family ran a restaurant, but he says growing up in the East Bay was difficult. “We always felt like we were living in our own shadows, because we didn’t want people to know we were undocumented,” he explained.

After high school, he enrolled in community college, but when his father got sick, he and his mother had to start working full-time to support the family. He says he started drinking partly to cope with stress, but that over the years his drinking turned into alcoholism. He was arrested four times for drinking and driving, which under the Priority Enforcement Program are all deportable offenses.

“I was facing a felony and I realized I could be deported if I’m convicted,” Jones said. (The Express agreed not to use his real name, or reveal his birth country, because his immigration case is pending and he fears retaliation on the heels of Donald Trump’s election.)

But while he was in custody of the sheriff for drunk driving, ICE did not initiate an immigration hold to arrest him.

After completing a nine-month sentence in jail, as a result of one of his DUI convictions, he also learned that he had an arrest warrant for a failure to appear at a court hearing regarding another DUI case. He says he missed the hearing because he had been enrolled in a rehab program.

With help from the public defender, Jones was able to stay out of jail and, instead, registered in the Contra Costa Sheriff’s custody alternative program.

He hoped this would allow him to continue working and treating his alcohol addiction. He had an ankle monitor, which connected to a base station located at his family’s home and automatically measured his blood-alcohol. He was also required to check in every few weeks in-person at the facility in Martinez.

But shortly after enrolling in the program, he arrived at the sheriff’s building in Martinez for a routine check-in and was ushered to a back room, where Specialist Mary Hooker handed him over to several ICE agents. They immediately strapped handcuffs around his wrists.

“I felt like I was going to be deported that day,” he recalled.

Jones was incarcerated in the Contra Costa Sheriff’s West County Detention Facility in Richmond, where he awaited a bond hearing.

ICE pays the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office $82 per detainee, per day, to hold people awaiting immigration-court hearings at the West County Detention Facility, according to contracts between the sheriff and Department of Homeland Security. Since 2012, Contra Costa earned more than $22 million, or about $4.4 million a year, by incarcerating federal immigration detainees.

Inside the jail, Jones donned the green-colored uniform that immigration detainees are made to wear. “They just looked at us as if we were all criminals,” he said of the guards. “They don’t know our stories, our backgrounds.”

At his bond hearing, held via video conference with a federal judge in San Francisco, Jones and his attorney argued for his release, saying he’d demonstrated a commitment to addressing his drinking problem by staying sober and that he wasn’t a danger to the public. Twelve of his family members showed up in support.

Jones has a grandmother who still lives in the country where he was born, but she is in her 80s. He has no other close family there. He believes he would have trouble adapting if deported.

“It’s a life I never really lived. I feel like this is home,” he said about the U.S.

Although Jones was able to post bond and get out of the Richmond jail, he still faces a future removal hearing to determine whether he can stay.

After leaving ICE custody, his attorney says the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office initially refused to re-enroll him in the custody alternative program. According to Jones, his case manager told him he was no longer eligible because the sheriff’s office was treating his arrest by ICE, and the immigration case pending against him, as a new offense and a violation. As a result, the sheriff kept him detained in the facility in Richmond for another week.

Jones said he feels that the sheriff’s office and immigration authorities are treating his alcohol addiction as an excuse to deport him. If forced to leave the U.S., he fears that he won’t be able to access affordable treatment for his problem, and that his family will suffer as a result.

Only after his public defender argued his case with the sheriff did they relent and allow him back into the program. His felony DUI was subsequently reduced to a misdemeanor.

‘Just to Touch Base’

Amy Smith wasn’t planning on staying in America. She attended college in the United States in the late 1980s before moving back to Thailand, where she was born. But in 2002, she flew back to California on a tourist visa. She met a man. They began dating and struck up a long-term relationship. She started working, too, and applied for permanent residency, but was denied. She ended up over-staying her visa, figuring that her relationship was headed toward marriage, and that she would gain citizenship status in a few years.

But one day, she got into a fight with her boyfriend. She was arrested and convicted of domestic violence in 2013, according to law enforcement records. Her eventual sentence was three years’ probation.

She completed anger-management classes, wasn’t arrested again, and assumed that her probation term would be over by the end of 2016. In fact, she wasn’t even required to report to a probation officer.

But then, out of the blue, she was contacted by a Contra Costa Probation Officer who identified himself as “Pat.”

According to Smith (also not her real name), Pat told her she needed to come to Martinez “just to touch base.” When she arrived, Pat led her to room where two ICE agents immediately strapped handcuffs on her.

According to ICE records, the agents drove her in a “caged vehicle” to the Sansome Street jail and court complex, where she was put in a cell with two Spanish-speaking women. Smith scrambled to contact a friend to help her make bail, succeeding just before the deadline, when she would have been shipped off to another longer-term holding facility, either in Richmond or Yuba.

Smith said she always trusted police, feeling that the system was more or less fair. “I now see law enforcement in a different light,” she told the Express. She said she felt deceived by the probation officer, who made no mention of anything concerning immigration laws when he asked her to come to his office.

According to Probation Department records obtained through a Public Records Act request, her experience was one of multiple surprise arrests that Contra Costa probation officers have set up over the past year at their office at 50 Douglas Drive in Martinez.

In some cases, ICE agents contacted probation officers to set up an arrest. But in other cases, probation officers were the ones initiating contact with ICE, seeking information about people under their supervision — and in some cases even advocating that ICE agents deport people.

The setup for Smith’s arrest appears in one of the emails obtained by the Express.

On September 15, 2016, ICE Deportation Officer Andrew Kaskanlian wrote to Probation Officer Patrick Gallagher asking if Smith was on active probation. Gallagher replied that she was, and added in a different email that she wasn’t obligated to report to any probation officer.

“I’m sure we could call her in if needed,” Gallagher offered.

“It would be awesome if we could get her to report,” the ICE agent replied.

According to the email chain, Gallagher then called Smith and asked her to report to his office. He wrote back to the ICE agent the next day: “She is all yours when she gets here.”

“Beautiful,” the ICE agent replied.

Gallagher set up other surprise arrests for ICE agents. On April 4, 2016, he wrote to ICE Deportation Officer Rui Guan, offering up the name and date-of-birth of a person under probation’s supervision. He asked if ICE had more information on the man. The deportation officer ran the information and found that the individual was a non-citizen who had been previously deported, and had been convicted for possessing drugs and driving drunk in the past.

“We would like to deport this individual,” the ICE agent replied.

According to the email records, Gallagher then called the man to come to the probation department’s Martinez office on April 13, when the ICE agents would by lying in wait.

When Gallagher checked in with ICE on April 11, to make sure they were still coming to arrest the man, he offered up yet another probationer. “I also have another guy you might be interested in,” he wrote, based on information he accessed from CLETs, a California law-enforcement database.

The ICE agent ran the second man’s name, but informed Gallagher the individual was legally in the country.

In another case, two probation officers contacted an ICE agent to check on the citizenship status of the father of a juvenile under the department’s supervision. When the ICE agent identified the man as a non-citizen from Honduras who had previously been deported (but had no criminal convictions), one of the probation officers, Jose Castellanoz, interviewed the son to gain information about where his father was living.

Castellanoz and his colleague Andrea Sosa then shared the man’s last known whereabouts to help ICE track him down, even though he wasn’t under probation’s supervision. The man wasn’t even a priority under ICE’s own Priority Enforcement Program.

On June 20, 2016, Gallagher again contacted ICE Deportation Officer Guan, because a man under his supervision told him in an interview that he was from Nicaragua. “Can you let me know his immigration status,” Gallagher asked the agent. ICE informed Gallagher the individual wasn’t deportable.

In some instances, probation staff tried to convince their colleagues they shouldn’t actively help ICE arrest and deport people.

For example, on July 18, 2016, ICE Deportation Officer Nicholas Petrone asked Sosa if a specific person was under her supervision. Sosa replied affirmatively, telling the ICE agent the man was on active probation. The agent asked her for assistance in arresting the man.

“Can we help ICE to arrest his probationer?” Sosa asked his supervisor, Probation Director Michael Newton, in an email.

“I don’t think we should participate in his arrest,” Newton responded.

But then, according to the email records, probation set up a meeting with the individual so that ICE could arrest him anyway.

The extra degree of cooperation between ICE and the Contra Costa Probation Department, compared to other counties in California that have sanctuary policies, was underscored in an August 29 email from an ICE agent to a probation officer: “Would you be able to help me out with someone arrested in SF this summer on a DV charge?” the ICE agent wrote. “SF probation can be uncooperative at times.”

In another email exchange initiated by the Contra Costa probation, Officer Tina Martinez wrote to ICE Deportation Officer Jeffery Castro seeking an “update” as to whether or not an individual had been deported.

“He was deported on 6/21/2016, please let me know if you hear of his return,” the ICE agent replied.

Upon hearing of the man’s deportation, Martinez replied, “Great, thanks!”

Below his email message, Castro included as part of his signature the following Ernest Hemingway quotation:

“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Violating Trust?

Todd Billeci, Contra Costa County’ chief probation officer, maintains that his department is acting in the best interest of public safety by cooperating with ICE. “Like any other law enforcement agency, we’ll cooperate with ICE,” he told the Express.

“If ICE contacts us, and they’re doing some form of investigation, we’ll evaluate the case and make a decision balancing the rehabilitation of the individual against public-safety needs,” he said.

However, Billeci acknowledged that, over the past year, some probation officers took actions that were out-of-step with the department’s current policy regarding contacts with ICE. He said that the department looked into some of the cases and realized it had two conflicting policies. One, drafted in 2013, stated that when any individual, adult, or juvenile “is suspected of being an alien and illegally in the country, the Deputy should contact the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.” This policy also states that the probation department should honor ICE holds, a practice that in some instances could be illegal under the TRUST Act.

According to probation records, however, this policy was suspended on June 26, 2016, and replaced with a new policy stating that the “immigration status of individuals alone is generally not a matter for [Probation] Department action,” but that officers “may assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

According Billeci, currently a person’s immigration status cannot be the sole basis for a probation officer contacting, detaining, or arresting a person.

“We had a few hiccups,” Billeci said about disseminating the new policy among the department’s 125 probation officers.

Still, the chief said the new policy doesn’t prohibit the kinds of surprise arrests detailed in this investigation. He added that he doesn’t think these arrests, and other forms of close cooperation with ICE, will undermine public trust in the probation department, or interfere with its mission of supervising people.

But Contra Costa Public Defender Robin Lipetzky called the ongoing coordination of probation with ICE “disheartening” and said the practice undermines trust between the department and the people under its supervision.

“What is particularly troubling is the practice of a probation officer ordering a person on probation to come in for a meeting for the sole purpose of setting up an ICE arrest,” she said. “This practice would seem to be an abuse of the role of probation.”

Lipetzky and Billeci have met and discussed the policy with respect to ICE. She said she feels Billeci has taken her concerns seriously.

She hopes that Billeci “will put an end to this collusion with ICE, particularly in light of the current climate of fear experienced by the immigrant community.”

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston declined to be interviewed for this report, as did his employees, who were allegedly involved in setting up surprise arrests with ICE. Sheriff’s Specialist Hooker declined to answer questions when reached by phone, saying only, “you’re accusing me of things,” before hanging up.

Specialist Culley, who facilitated Kim’s arrest by ICE agents, was not available during multiple calls to her office.

Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for Livingston, wrote in an email that the sheriff’s office would not discuss specific cases. “We can confirm that ICE made an arrest at CAF,” he wrote about the facility in Martinez. “We will not discuss another agency’s arrest or investigation.”

Lee explained that the custody alternative program currently enrolls 470 individuals, compared to about 1,450 inmates incarcerated in the county’s three jails.

In 2016, the county held on average 201 individuals at the behest of federal agencies each day, but the sheriff’s office wouldn’t state exactly how many were ICE detainees.

The sheriff’s department also declined to release records pertaining to ICE holds it has honored at its jails, as well as records of other types of cooperation between sheriff’s employees and ICE agents to identify and detain immigrants, such as the surprise arrests experienced by Kim and Jones.

These practices and policies by Contra Costa law-enforcement agencies go against major trends in criminal justice, which emphasize less incarceration and more rehabilitation, argued Rodney of the Immigrant Policy Center. “Here we have people on probation, but they’re being sucked into the prison system and punished with deportation. It’s really damaging to the idea of second chances.”

Hussain, of the Asian Law Caucus, said the county’s actions have already created fear among immigrants. “They should not be involved at all with ICE,” she said, emphasizing that immigration violations are civil matters, not criminal ones.

David Jones is convinced that, without the help of a private attorney, he would have already been deported. “But it depletes your resources, when you’re locked up, and you lose everything,” he said about his time in ICE custody.

Amy Smith is less hopeful about her situation. She suspects she will lose her immigration case and be sent to Thailand. And she questions whether, after the election of Trump, California will protect immigrants — or ramp up cooperation with federal deportation agents.

Yet she wants to stay here in her home state. “I don’t label myself. I’m not Thai, not American,” she said. “I identify with California. I want to be a Californian.”


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