June 16, 2008

Rep. Lee Lashes Out Against ICE

By Matt O'Brien
Contra Costa Times

OAKLAND — Pledging to "take them on big-time," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, sharply criticized the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency Friday and declared she would push for measures to reduce the fear she said agents have caused East Bay immigrant families.

The Oakland Democrat told a packed North Oakland church that she wants to "ensure that ICE is following the rules and that those rules are well-known and publicized — especially when it comes to actions at schools, hospitals, religious centers and other critical community institutions."

Her comments followed a furor in Oakland and Berkeley last month when federal operations to arrest illegal immigrants, which ICE says were routine, caused panic because agents were seen in the vicinity of public schools.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the sightings that caused panic "turned out to be entirely erroneous. It's very unfortunate that some people in positions of authority perpetuated those rumors."

But the circumstances surrounding those and other arrests continued to invite condemnation and confusion from local officials this month.

Noel Gallo, an Oakland school board member, told Lee Friday that he believed ICE agents "purposefully" parked near the Stonehurst Elementary School on May 6. And he argued that it was not in dispute that last year at Melrose Elementary School, ICE agents followed a parent toward the principal's office and later escorted her out of the school.

"I am concerned that these intimidation tactics are, quite frankly, inhumane," Lee said. "Some, I think, could be politically motivated. And they are all, I think, totally unacceptable."

What remains unclear is whether ICE has the sort of rules about sensitive locations that Lee said she wants to make sure are followed.

ICE's predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, had a written policy expressly stating that the service "attempt to avoid apprehension of persons and to tightly control investigative operations on the premises of schools, places of worship, funerals and other religious ceremonies," according to copies of agency memorandums from the 1990s.

But Kice said that past policies were not necessarily transferred to ICE when it formed under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

"We're a new agency," Kice said. "We have a completely new mission. We have established operating procedures."

Declining to speak about internal policies, Kice said that the agency's publicly stated policy "is that we conduct enforcement at appropriate times and appropriate places." She also said the agency tries to avoid interaction with third parties that could jeopardize the safety of agents or their targets.

Kice said that ICE's Northern California fugitive operations division arrested 2,121 illegal immigrants between Oct. 1 and May 31. Of those, 1,471 were considered fugitives, or people who have ignored a prior deportation order. Another 167 were not fugitives but had criminal charges. And the remaining 583 were in the country illegally and were picked up in the course of the operations.

Lee became the latest Bay Area lawmaker to lambaste the 5-year-old immigration agency in recent weeks, although it was not immediately clear how she would go about introducing any changes to current policy.

Last month, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, invited San Rafael educators to testify at a congressional hearing about the impacts that Marin County immigration raids have had on local schools. At the same time, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, has been leading an inquiry into ICE's medical treatment of detainees.

Lee said she has raised her concerns with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which this week proposed a draft $4.8 billion budget for ICE in the coming fiscal year, which is $60 million more than what was requested by the Bush administration. Of that, $800 million would be allotted to efforts focused on identifying and deporting dangerous criminals. Legislators also added a clause to the proposal that would force ICE to cancel contracts with private detention facilities that receive poor audits.

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