Second in a series on illegal immigration
The job of a city cop has its ups and downs. For every intriguing investigation or adrenalin-dumping pursuit, there are scores of minor calls – the barking dogs and noise complaints that make up the narrative of patrol work. Yet fighting crime is mostly a black and white concept, an effort that brings satisfaction at the end of a shift.
That is not always the case for the agents of Homeland Security Investigations, the agency authorized to detain and deport illegal immigrants. HSI is a part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security which arose from the ashes of 9/11 to become a large, highly politicized juggernauat that is, nevertheless, extremely vulnerable to the shifting winds of Beltway politics.
The complications of immigration enforcement are evident in its history: It was first assigned to the Treasury Department, then the Burueau of Immigration, next the somewhat infamous “INS” (Immigration and Naturalization Service) in 1933, and eventually transferred to DHS where, in 2003, it was renamed ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement). HSI is the most recent incarnation of immigration enforcement, which is obviously more than you need to know, except to recognize that these federal agents know how to roll with the political waves.
In the last few years, HSI investigators have been assisting police departments and sheriff’s offices in the struggle against criminal street gangs. The federal nexus has been the membership of illegal aliens in gangs such as the Surenos (“Southerners” in English, it is the nation’s largest criminal street gang) and their smaller rival, the Nortenos (“Northerners”).
That cooperation also coincided with my assignment as a gang intel officer. I welcomed HSI’s offer of assistance, imagining that rolling with federal authority would be a straightforward advantage. Not necessarily.
The reality became clear over the course of several gang sweeps, which are coordinated police operations involving patrol officers, gang and narcotics investigators, and federal agents. The sweeps target locations where gang members congregate, such as street corners, alleyways or parks, while the most violent gang bangers also receive a knock at their front door. With the addition of HSI, the home visits were expanded to include gang members suspected of unlawful entry into the U.S.
The reaction to “La Migra” (as immigration cops are known in the Hispanic community) at the front was dramatic. Family members of gang members, who normally defer to the their loud-mouth thugs out of fear or disinterest, will suddenly and loudly tell their son, brother or cousin to “Shut up!” The fear – of incarceration and eventual deportation – is palpable. That may sound harsh, but with gang violence the stakes are high.
Despite this reception, this is where the situation gets murky. The agent’s next move is completely dependent upon the prevailing winds almost 3,000 miles away in our nation’s capitol. Four years ago, agents accompanying me on a gang sweep detained both targets and collateral (i.e. gang members and family members suspected of unlawful entry). There were major repercussions following this decision, and subsequent policy limited sweeps to the apprehension of gang members. This removed legitimate leverage from these operations, especially in the cases where the parents (who were illegal aliens) were both aware and dismissive of their son’s criminal activity.
These reversals clearly frustrate federal agents whose arrest authority is literally there one day and gone the next. The lesson from these experiences is that immigration laws are carved in shifting sand. There is no fine line, no definitive enforcement model that is invulnerable to politics. The federal agents who operate on this shaky foundation already perform a difficult and dangerous job. They also must carry out their duties knowing that today’s legitimate operation could be the catalyst for tomorrow’s course reversal.
That is a lousy way to support a law enforcement agency. It is also a lousy way to run a country.