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Officials in the sanctuary city of Santa Cruz are angry over reports that during a series of joint raids that netted suspected gang members, ICE also detained people because of their immigration status.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a raid in Los Angeles. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a raid in Los Angeles. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Cruz police said they only participated in the raids after being assured by senior officials with the Department of Homeland Security that no one would be taken into custody for being an undocumented immigrant.

A statement from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said the special agent in charge of the San Francisco field office, Ryan Spradlin, told Santa Cruz police Chief Kevin Vogel that some people not included in the federal warrants might be detained until their backgrounds were checked.

Vogel angrily told reporters Thursday that he felt betrayed by DHS and ICE. He said DHS acted outside the scope of the operation in detaining people for their immigration status. Santa Cruz police were looking to get federal help arresting suspected members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, who they thought were planning to kill members of the community.

“As a result of this betrayal of trust we will be taking a long and hard look about whether we will cooperate with this federal agency in the future,” Vogel said.

The ICE statement, from spokesman James Schwab, said suspected gang members were the targets of the operation.

Eleven undocumented immigrants were detained initially for possible immigration violations due to their alleged association with the gang suspects, ICE said.

“Allegations that the agency secretly planned an immigration enforcement action in hopes there would be new political leadership that would allow for an alleged ‘secret’ operation to take place are completely false, reckless, and disturbing,” Schwab said.

Five-year operation

The raids took place at 11 locations in Santa Cruz nine days ago. Police and agents from Homeland Security Investigations went after 10 men listed in a federal indictment who were wanted on drug or murder charges.

Santa Cruz Deputy Chief Dan Flippo said they believed the men are members of MS-13. Federal authorities allege members of the gang, which has its roots in El Salvador, engage in various criminal activities, including drug trafficking, murder, rape, robbery and other crimes.

The raids began at 4 a.m. and nine of the indicted suspects were arrested, as was one other man with felony warrants.

Later, a local reporter questioned Flippo about the raids and said there were reports that other people were detained. Then residents spoke at an afternoon City Council meeting on the day of the arrests, saying there were immigration detentions and in some cases, children were left unattended (ICE denied this in its statement).

The assistant chief said that each time he asked DHS about immigration checks he was told that everything was related to gang activity. He kept pressing the agency because, he said, he didn’t feel like he was getting accurate information from DHS.

At least 10 others detained

Flippo said he talked with a deputy special agent in charge on the evening after the raids who told him six other people, including two women, were taken to an ICE facility. Four others were given notice to appear at a ICE office, the assistant chief said.

Ten of the 11 who were detained were released and ICE said the one still in custody has a criminal history.

He said agents followed procedures in arresting suspected gang members.

“All of the arrests (that day) were conducted in accordance with agency policies and consistent with the special agents’ authorities under federal law,” ICE said.

But Flippo said ICE had violated his trust and he was upset the agency made no statements on the raids.

“I am disgusted that this was withheld from me and that they did not communicate with our community what had occurred,” he said.

Mayor Cynthia Chase said the immigration detention violated the public’s trust.

“DHS’s utter disregard and defiance of our sanctuary city status not only confirmed many of the fears and concerns that were expressed in community members, but has laid to our community’s trust of its own local government,” she said

Spradlin, the ICE special agent in charge, said the city’s reaction was political.

“It’s unfortunate when politics get intertwined with a well-planned and -executed public safety operation. When politics undermine law and order, the only winners are the criminals,” he said. “I told the deputy chief that rather than disparaging this operation, the community of Santa Cruz should understand that they are safer because of it.”

Santa Cruz recently affirmed its status as a sanctuary city before President Donald Trump signed an executive order to withhold non-mandated federal funds from such communities.

The city’s police manual says: “The immigration status of individuals alone is not a matter for police action.” It also says: “Requests by ICE, or any other federal agency, for assistance from this department should be directed to a supervisor. The department may provide available support services, such as traffic control or peacekeeping efforts, to ICE or other federal agencies.”