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Escondido’s ICE Partnership Raises Concerns Over Rights
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Escondido’s ICE Partnership Raises Concerns Over Rights

More than 800 people have been arrested since 2010 under a partnership between the Escondido Police Department, near San Diego, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In a series of stories for the North County Times, Edward Sifuentes investigated the impact of the police partnership and found that the program lacked formal guidelines and record-keeping.

Police Chief Jim Maher said the department did not keep names of people handed over to immigration authorities because “that’s just a lot of bureaucratic work that I don’t see any law enforcement value to.” He did promise to start drafting written guidelines to the partnership between ICE and police so that officers would know their duties.

The two-year-old program, called Operation Joint Effort, has been praised by law enforcement, which say it is responsible for ridding the city of hundreds of dangerous criminals. But critics say the program is alienating the immigrant community in Escondido and tearing families apart.

***Sifuentes’ stories are no longer available online.

Edward’s Story Behind the Stories

For two years, we’ve seen the number of illegal immigrants deported from Escondido, Calif., climb as a result of a unique partnership between the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Escondido Police Department.

When Operation Joint Effort started two years ago, we knew very little about it. The program was never debated at the City Council or publicized in any significant way. But as we heard more about it, we noticed the number of people said to have been arrested and deported rise from a handful to 300 to 800.

Every time we reported on the program, officials would only say that everyone who was arrested was someone we would not want living in our neighborhood: rapists, drug dealers, gang members, etc. But critics raised the specter of innocent people being caught in the web. So, we decided to figure out what this partnership was all about.

Since the start of this project, there have been many obstacles. Agencies have not provided all the information that we’ve sought, particularly the names of individuals deported under this partnership, the crimes they have been accused of and the circumstances of their arrests.

We filed a records request with the City of Escondido and a FOIA with the Department of Homeland Security seeking this information. The city told us that the police department did not keep the information we were asking for. The Department of Homeland Security has yet to fully respond to our request after more than six months.

The Institute for Justice and Journalism’s fellowship has helped me immensely in reporting this story. It helped me understand that DHS can take a long time to reply to FOIAs. It gave me a new perspective on the story, including the fact that Escondido’s program is truly unique. It also gave me the confidence to continue to push on the story.

The first story of my project was published May 12, 2012. It did not answer all the questions we had, but it shed new light on the program and opened the door. I was able to interview ICE officials running the program, tour the offices where the ICE officers work, and look at some of the case files they are working on. They allowed me to see the partnership through their eyes, to see whom they were after and whom they were not. We also learned that the program has grown from three ICE officers to eight.

Since the story was published, some positive changes have been announced. The Escondido police chief said he is working on written guidelines for officers to follow. He also pledged his assistance to release the information we have requested.

The public’s reaction to the story has been mixed. This is typical of immigration stories in our area. There are those who support any effort to deport illegal immigrants and those who believe the partnership is ill-advised. Web commenting on the story was turned off due to the negative comments.

I am extremely grateful for the help and support I’ve received from IJJ and other fellows. It has been invaluable to me in pursuing this story. I look forward to staying in contact with everyone I’ve met as I continue to work on this and many other story ideas that have come from my participation in this fellowship.

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