SAN FRANCISCO — Federal immigration officials pushed back hard against the assertion that they had duped the Santa Cruz police department into helping them make immigration arrests during a raid on an El Salvador-based gang.
They also denied that the aggressive immigration approach of President Donald Trump's administration had anything to do with their plans or actions.
"We worked closely with the Santa Cruz Police Department over the last five years on this case," Immigrations and Customs Enforcement spokesman James Schwab said in response to statements Thursday by the city's police leadership and mayor. "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, the spokesman for ICE's San Francisco field office, said in a statement.
Santa Cruz, a coastal college town of about 60,000 people, is a so-called sanctuary city, which prohibits its police from cooperating with federal authorities investigating immigration violations.
Police Chief Kevin Vogel and Assistant Chief Dan Flippo said at a news conference that the federal officials lied when they assured them a Feb. 13 joint operation in the region would not include immigration-related arrests during the raid on the gang known by the names MS-13 and Mara Salvatrucha.
Flippo said he didn't learn of the immigration arrests until the next night when dozens of protesters disrupted a City Council meeting to voice their displeasure.
Vogel said the department no longer trusts the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, and will no longer work with the agency.
"We can't cooperate with a law enforcement agency we cannot trust," Vogel said.
Flippo said the gang-related arrests at about a dozen residences were the culmination of a five-year investigation launched when a Santa Cruz resident called police to complain about gang members extorting local businesses. Flippo said his department enlisted the help of DHS because of the gang's notoriety and global reach. He said the raids were made because it appeared gang members were planning another killing.
But Flippo said that 10 or more people agents encountered at the residences also were detained solely on immigration charges.
Schwab, the ICE spokesman, acknowledged that 11 people were detained on immigration charges, but that police had agreed before the raid that some foreign nationals might be briefly held until their identities and case histories could be determined.
Schwab said that's exactly what happened, and 10 of the 11 immigrants were released. One of them remains in custody because of his criminal history and possible ties to the gang investigation.
"The chief acknowledged this possibility and it was agreed that no foreign nationals would enter the Santa Cruz Police Department's facility or their police vehicles," Schwab said.
The police chief and mayor each apologized to city residents for unwittingly violating the sanctuary policy of Santa Cruz, a city known for its liberal politics.
"I'm deeply disturbed and upset," Mayor Cynthia Chase said. "I'm outraged."
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