The knock at Carlos David Martin Ojeda’s home finally came, minutes after sunrise.
Ojeda, a 46-year-old undocumented immigrant and convicted sex offender who had been released from prison to the streets, opened the door of his mobile home in Chino at 6 a.m. Tuesday, July 19, and found an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer on the porch. As other officers watched with rifles at the ready, Ojeda was handcuffed and placed in a black SUV.
The process of returning Ojeda to Mexico had begun.
“I think he knew that at some point he’d get caught,” said David Marin, deputy Los Angeles field office director for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations.
The arrest was one of 112 in a four-day period in a six-county area that included Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles, during a special operation in which ICE sought to call attention to its mission by rounding up some of what it considered the most serious offenders.
They included a 64-year-old Mexican man arrested in unincorporated Riverside County near Hemet who was convicted in 1996 of attempting to murder a peace officer. A little more than half had felony convictions for serious or violent offenses, such as child sex crimes, weapons violations and assault. The others had convictions for serious or multiple misdemeanors.
Ojeda was convicted in 2014 of lewd and lascivious acts on a girl under age 14 and served about two years of a four-year sentence.
If Ojeda does not object to his deportation when he sees an immigration judge in about 10 days, he could be on a bus from the detention center in Adelanto to Mexico shortly afterward. If he asks for and is granted bail, Ojeda could remain in the U.S. for three to four more years before his case is resolved.
“My greatest fear, and what keeps me up at night other than keeping these officers safe, is that we will not be able to get to these individuals in time,” Marin said. “Is that person going to commit some other crime?”
Like many aspects of immigration and deportation, it’s complicated.
In November 2014, President Barack Obama, under pressure from critics who said immigration policy was tearing apart mixed families of legal and illegal residents, refocused deportation efforts.
The stated targets would include undocumented immigrants with convictions for endangering national security, murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, trafficking in drugs or weapons, or three or more misdemeanors or serious misdemeanors such as drunken driving.
Ojeda has one of those mixed families. His wife appeared at the door with him, but agents did not ask about her immigration status, Marin said. Ojeda has three children, ages 21, 19 and 12, who are U.S. citizens. That meant, Marin said, Ojeda had likely been in the U.S. for at least two decades.
“One of the tough things we have to do is handcuff Dad because of the impression it leaves on the children,” Marin said, noting that officers prefer to arrest suspects outside homes, as was the case with Ojeda.
Luz Gallegos is community programs director for TODEC Legal Center in Perris, which advocates for immigrant communities. Her organization seeks a balance in immigration policy that will protect families.
“We’re in favor of keeping our country safe, and we understand about people with certain crimes, but what worries us is when (immigration officers) go after certain people when there are family members that are mixed-status family members,” Gallegos said. “The kids are the ones that get impacted. That is why we keep on advocating for a solution to our immigration system that is long overdue.”
Moreno Valley resident Sabine Durden takes a harder line on the issue. Her son, Dominic, was killed in a 2012 traffic collision caused by an undocumented immigrant who was still in the country despite convictions for DUI and robbery. Juan Zacarias Tzun, a Guatemalan national, was eventually deported after being convicted of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the crash.
Durden said she agrees “1,000 percent” with the ICE arrests.
“They are saving American lives. But it shouldn’t stop there, because being here illegally is still against the law,” Durden said Wednesday from Cleveland, where she pressed for stricter enforcement of immigration laws in a speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.
Marin acknowledged that officers are keenly aware of the split opinion on immigration policy.
“Regardless of the larger debate, this office is contributing by getting these people out of these communities,” he said.
It’s not always easy.
BARRIERS TO DEPORTATION
The arrests happen just about every day, Marin said. Some take place after a day or two of surveillance. For the more serious offenders, such as Ojeda, reconnaissance can last a couple of weeks to determine when the person comes and goes and whether he is likely to be armed.
Ojeda’s was typical. Officers staked out his home in unmarked vehicles starting about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. Two people who left in separate cars were pulled over and questioned, and it was determined that Ojeda was home. So officers waited in the dark, hoping he’d emerge.
When he didn’t, an officer knocked on Ojeda’s door at 6 a.m. Ojeda identified himself, and he was arrested without incident. Officers let him put on shoes and grab a jacket for the ride to the Homeland Security Investigations office in San Bernardino, where Ojeda was fingerprinted and allowed to make phone calls to family or the Mexican consulate.
Apprehending a person who is already in custody can be difficult.
ICE officers, when their deportation targets were refocused in 2014, were ordered to cease requesting that detention facilities hold a person for 48 hours after their anticipated release. Now, officers ask only to be notified of the release.
In San Bernardino County, sheriff’s Cpl. Ruben Perez said, no one there actually picks up a phone and dials ICE unless there’s a warrant for the person’s arrest. Instead, the arrestee’s fingerprints and the nature of the charges are electronically delivered to federal authorities. It’s up to them, then, to anticipate when the person will be released.
Perez said that’s typical policy in Southern California law enforcement.
And that’s one of several sources of frustration for ICE, Marin said.
“A lot of law enforcement agencies won’t event notify us,” including the Los Angeles Police Department, Marin added. “We can’t be at every single jail waiting for someone to be released.”
Even when a suspect is arrested, he or she has the right to deportation and bail hearings and appeals of a judge’s final decision.
An additional hurdle is that most countries require the deportee to have travel documents. About two dozen nations, which ICE described in congressional testimony as “recalcitrant,” drag their feet in providing the documents or fail to offer them at all.
In the past three years, according to ICE statistics, more than 87,000 undocumented immigrants have had to be released back into the U.S. because they lacked the proper papers.
“Sadly, ICE records indicate a number of these aliens have gone on to commit additional crimes while in the United States,” ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this month.
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