By Jessie Mangaliman
The San Jose Mercury News
BAY AREA, Calif. — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detain undocumented immigrants who ignored deportation orders.
Immigration agents arrested three South Bay residents early Tuesday, part of an ongoing federal roundup of undocumented immigrants who have ignored previous deportation orders.
For the first time, the [San Jose]Mercury News was invited along to watch as the arrests were made, an effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to show Bay Area journalists the inner workings of a growing national crackdown on immigrants who are deportable because of criminal convictions and against others who have been ordered deported but who haven't left the country.
The invitation to view the raids — conducted without help from local South Bay authorities — came months after a comprehensive immigration reform bill was stymied in Congress and more than a week after federal authorities announced they would step up enforcement of current laws by punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
"People make us out to be the bad guys," said Timothy S. Aitken, ICE's deputy field office director in San Francisco. "We're doing our work in the most professional and efficient manner possible."
Traveling in unmarked sport-utility vehicles and cars, Aitken and six armed ICE agents — all wearing bulletproof vests and blue nylon jackets emblazoned in yellow with "POLICE-ICE" - descended on quiet neighborhoods in San Jose, Fremont and Sunnyvale and knocked on the front doors of four targeted homes. On each occasion, there were brief conversations at the door, then a quick entry into the house after obtaining permission.
Miguel Valdez Zarco, 46, a registered sex offender who also had been convicted of domestic violence, was handcuffed after emerging from his South San Jose apartment in a tank top, athletic shorts and rubber sandals.
"I'm paying for the crimes I committed," Zarco said a few hours later, while being booked and fingerprinted at the ICE office in San Francisco.
Zarco was deported to Mexico in 2000 and, he said, a day later, crossed back into the United States.
Zarco was one of three immigrants arrested without incident by ICE agents. Also arrested were Ricardo Perez Calderon, 24, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was convicted of date rape, and Ruel Toribio Rivera, 39, an immigrant from the Philippines who has a green card but was ordered deported after being convicted — and serving time — for cocaine possession.
The fourth immigrant sought by ICE was not at home.
Since 2003, the number of arrests as part of the "Fugitive Operations" program has grown exponentially, parallel to a rise in the number of ICE teams working on rounding up undocumented immigrants.
Nationwide, there were 1,901 arrests in 2003, when just 17 teams of immigration agents were deployed. But from October 2006 to July 20 — with 69 teams active in the United States - there were 34,287 arrests, according to ICE records. At least six new teams, two of them in Northern California, are expected to be in operation by the end of the year.
In the Bay Area for the same period, there were 2,299 arrests. More than half of the immigrants arrested had defied deportation orders. More than 400 were immigrants who had criminal convictions. The rest were undocumented immigrants who didn't have deportation orders but were caught up in the sweeps nonetheless.
This year, for the first time, Aitken said, the crackdown has made a dent in the nationwide number of immigrants who have standing deportation orders, reducing it from 632,000 to 620,000.
For the past few years, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, ICE has taken journalists on similar "ride-alongs." But coordinating it in the Bay Area, because of the agents' large workload, has been difficult, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
"People benefit from getting a firsthand look at what we do," Kice said. The media tours, she said, are an effort to silence whispers that ICE conducts raids in schools and that it leaves small children unattended after arresting their parents.
Unlike in Southern California — where some agencies have struck partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency that includes ICE, to target criminally convicted immigrants — many South Bay police departments have largely resisted working with ICE.
In New Jersey, some presidential candidates and prominent politicians have been pointing to a triple slaying on a Newark, N.J., playground Aug. 4, to argue that illegal immigrants with criminal histories deserve harsher treatment. Suspects in the case include two illegal immigrants who could have been detained by federal authorities, some critics argue, had local police reported them.
But critics of the ICE crackdown said thousands of illegal immigrants who have not been ordered deported also are routinely caught up in sweeps, separating families whose members are of mixed immigration status: illegal and legal immigrants in one household.
Rivera, who works as a salesman at an electro-plating company in Sunnyvale, has two children who are U.S. citizens. His parents also are U.S. citizens.
Zarco said he has three daughters who are U.S. citizens by birth.
"It's sad that we continue to use punitive measures that hurt our families," said Patricia Diaz, executive director of Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, a San Jose advocacy group. "If we really want to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in our country, then we really need to change and reform our old and antiquated system."
Richard Konda, executive director of Asian Law Alliance, a legal advocacy group, questioned the timing of the Bay Area "ride-along."
"It's a coincidence to showcase this operation" at the same time that the government seems to be stepping up efforts to round up undocumented immigrants, Konda said.
"The sad part of this is if Congress had been able to move forward with some sensible plan to help people gain permanent status," Konda said, "we would not see these families being separated."
Copyright 2007 The San Jose Mercury News
ICE agents, with reporters, nab Calif. illegal immigrants