Friday, June 24, 2011

San Jose: Two federal immigration agents to help in city's anti-gang crackdown (San Jose Mercury News)

San Jose: Two federal immigration agents to help in city's anti-gang crackdown

By Sean Webby
Posted: 06/24/2011 02:57:11 PM PDT
Updated: 06/24/2011 03:04:53 PM PDT

About to lose more than 100 officers to layoffs and struggling with a bloody spate of gang slayings, San Jose police brass leaped at the chance to get for free the loan of a pair of elite federal agents to help them investigate the city's violent Nortenos, Surenos and other criminal crews.

But the SJPD is also a department that has repeatedly and publicly emphasized that it does not actively cooperate with the normal immigration enforcement of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, which is the agency from which the investigators hail.

When told of the embedded agents, who start Monday, some local immigrant advocates expressed concern.

"With all the anti-immigrant sentiment out there, we have to be careful with what that collaboration would be like,'' said Zelica Rodriguez, a director with Services, Immigrants Rights & Education Network (SIREN). "We worry that they are saying it's to fight crime, when in reality it still is about enforcing immigration law.''

Rodriguez added: "We want to make sure this is not about targeting people who are here trying to make a better life for themselves.''

Jill Malone of PACT, another advocate for the immigrant community, said she distrusts the federal agency, particularly in the wake of a scandal over whether the feds misled communities such as Santa Clara County over its forced participation in a highly controversial ICE immigration enforcement program called "SecureCommunities."

"We understand there are budget cuts, but we really hope that the police chief will work with community to solve these issues rather than turning to ICE,'' Malone said.

Under Chief Chris Moore's leadership, San Jose police are looking to improve their tense relationship with immigrant communities, especially Latinos, amid persistent allegations of racial profiling. One of Moore's first acts as chief was to discontinue a policy in which cars of unlicensed drivers stopped for minor traffic violations were impounded for a month -- a policy many felt unfairly targeted the undocumented Latino community.

And earlier this year, Moore took a prominent role in a national immigration/policing press conference during which he underlined his policy that officers refrain from participating in ICE immigration raids. He said at the time: "This (the issue of immigration enforcement) has become a wedge in our communities and we need to remove that wedge."

Moore this week sought to reassure the Latino community that the agents were here strictly to help them target violent gang members, not to seek administrative deportations. The chief said he had discussed the issue with ICE before agreeing to take on the agents. And he said that the agents would be supervised by SJPD personnel in the Gang Investigation Unit.

"This is about criminal gang enforcement. They are criminal investigation folks," Moore said. "If you are here in the community and doing no harm, then you have nothing to worry about. If you are engaged in criminal activity, I don't care where you came from."

Mayor Chuck Reed lent a message of support for the agents, who are here on indefinite loan: "We are grateful for the assistance of the federal government in tackling our gang problem," he said.

The two agents, who make a combined salary of more than $200,000, declined to be interviewed or identified.

But officials said the pair are part of an effort called "Operation Community Shield" described as a task force that investigates and targets violent street gangs and "seeks prosecution and/or removal of alien gang members from the United States."

Since the launch of the program in 2005, ICE and its partners have arrested more than 15,000 gang members and associates, representing more than 1,000 different gangs, according to its website. These apprehensions include more than 6,000 criminal arrests and nearly 9,000 administrative immigration arrests.

Shane Folden, special agent in charge of ICE in Northern California, said his "Operation Community Shield" agents were coming to the SJPD purely as a collaborative anti-gang resource.

"This is a public safety issue, a collaborative effort to protect the community and to remove them so that they cannot exploit private citizens and prey on innocent individuals," Folden said.

Folden said that innocent people, undocumented or not, had no reason to fear.

"I can't understand why someone would be worried about that,'' Folden said. "If you are a child pornographer, a gang member, a drug smuggler, then absolutely you should be worried."

Zach Friend, a spokesman for Santa Cruz police, said that they had to allay some community fears about the ICE agents when they were brought in last year during a homicide spike in which three of the city's six slayings were gang-related.

"We met with some of the leaders within the Latino community to ensure they could understand what the reasoning was behind it,'' Friend said. "The degree of expertise the agents brought here and the results spoke for themselves.''

Operation Southern Exposure netted 45 arrests, weapons and drugs.

San Jose, so far this year, has had 27 homicides, 14 of which police have identified as having gang elements.

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