LOS ANGELES, California - On a recent Tuesday morning, agents did not try to hide the feared “ICE” acronym on their vests. In the parking lot of a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, 14 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents prepared for a long day of detaining undocumented immigrants.
"We have been watching them all," said one, during a brief meeting to discuss the people on today’s “blacklist.”
"He is a gang member," he said about the man agents planned to go for first. Carlos, a 25-year-old Mexican, has already been deported twice.
The agents then distributed documents with information about the criminals, prepared their radios, stretched their legs, made phone calls, finished their coffee and check their cars.
They had been studying Carlos’ every move for days. They knew he was planning to leave early in the morning to load up his pick-up truck with tools and building materials. Sure enough, at 5:20 a.m., the immigrant was surrounded.
"What does this say?" one of the officials asked about a tattoo on his back. "It's my last name," the man said, already handcuffed. According to ICE, Carlos had been charged twice with drunk driving and for minor, drug-related offenses.
A few steps away, the detainee’s grandmother, Georgina, 64, spoke in Spanish with one of the officers. "He's going to work in construction," the woman claimed, imploring his release.
In a region that’s home to more than two million undocumented people, the Los Angeles ICE office -- whose jurisdiction covers seven counties in southern California -- is one of the busiest in the country. Its nine criminal search teams detained 5,481 people between October 1, 2016 and June 12 of this year, according to agency statistics.
Although the agency claims that criminals are the priority, 10 percent of detainees (496) had no criminal record; they’re known as collateral damage.
Under a magnifying glass
Following the inauguration of Donald Trump, ICE agents were given the green light to arrest any undocumented immigrants they come across while on the job.
"Under the current administration we can question any other people we find in a house," said David Marín, director of operations for ICE in Los Angeles.
However, Marín said that they are not interested in carrying out massive raids. "We do not go to Lowe's or Home Depot stores and arrest people indiscriminately," he said.
ICE did not respond to a Univision question about the number of Hispanic agents in its ranks, but there were a number of Hispanic officials present while Univision reported this story.
Marín estimated that 50 percent of the uniformed men in this region are of Latino origin, just like him.
"It's very helpful, because they know the community, the culture, but it is also a challenge because they often tell us: 'Why are you deporting your own people?'" the official said, adding that people close to him ask the same.
"Even family members listen to the negative coverage of us, that we arrest children,” said the man, 48, who has been working for ICE for nearly half his life.
“We explain that it is not what we do.”
He said he’s not bothered by these types of comments. "They’re not my people, they are not related to me in any way. I am doing my job: arresting those people who violate the laws of this country. There are consequences whether they paid a trafficker to take them or if they overstayed their visas," he said.
Around 8:00 a.m., this ICE team was still waiting for some fugitives to leave their homes. Knocking on doors, explained Marín, is no longer the first option to approach a target, because of the risk of a violent escape attempt and because many immigrants already know they are not obliged to open the door if they are not shown a search warrant.
But they made an exception in a house in Reseda, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.
An agent called out: "Police!" accompanied by a loud knock on the apartment door.
Despite criticism from municipal officials, ICE agents continue to identify themselves as local police officers and not all of their bulletproof vests bear the agency’s three-letter acronym.
This deceptive tactic could cause people in some L.A. neighborhoods to denounce less sexual crimes, according to studies of undocumented immigrant behavior.
Someone answered the door of the house, listened to one of the agents and then closed it. The building was surrounded by agents, and soon after a man tried to jump the fence in the backyard in an attempt to flee. A foot chase ensued, backed by ICE vehicles patrolling at high speed through the neighborhood.
A few blocks away, the man surrendered soon after. Background details of the Mexican wearing sandals and dirty denim trousers include accusations of drug sales, two occasions of drunk driving, resisting arrest and forgery. He had already been deported twice.
"Good work!" Marin told his agents.
At the end of the day a third immigrant was taken into custody. The agent planned to head to the Van Nuys neighborhood for an allegedly armed Mexican coyote and car thief.
He complained that in Los Angeles ICE agents operate alone. Their only contact with local police, he said, is when they're in touch about raids. "They have definitely made our job more difficult," Marin said.