Edward Sifuentes is a reporter with the North County Times in San Diego County. He covers immigration, tribal governments, politics and public safety. He previously worked at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., covering city politics, and at the Sanger Herald in Fresno, Calif., as a reporter and interim editor. He graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in Latin American Studies.
More than 800 people have been arrested since 2010 under a partnership between the Escondido Police Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The two-year-old program, called Operation Joint Effort, has been praised by the two agencies, 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.
Escondido’s Police Department is developing a policy to guide its officers’ activities under the department’s controversial partnership with federal immigration authorities, said police Chief Jim Maher. The partnership, called Operation Joint Effort, has been credited with the arrests of more than 800 criminal illegal immigrants in Escondido over the last two years. It has been heavily criticized by immigrant and civil rights groups because they say police are alienating the city’s immigrants, making them afraid to report crimes because they think they may be deported if they do.
Citing privacy rights of illegal immigrants, federal officials have declined to release the names and other information about hundreds of people arrested and deported under a 2-year-old partnership between the Escondido Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The stance drew sharp criticism from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. “It’s indefensible that criminal illegal aliens are being given privacy rights that arrested U.S. citizens might not receive,” Issa said. The North County Times filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request with ICE in October 2011 asking for the names, dates of birth and the charges filed against each of those individuals.
Roberto Lopez Oviedo of Escondido said he found himself penniless in one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, after being deported from the United States in April. Lopez said U.S. immigration authorities took his money and refused to give it back when he was deported. He had $200 and a cellphone when he tried to return to Escondido, where he had lived most of his life, he said. Lopez’s story illustrates a wider problem, immigrant rights advocates say. Advocacy groups say reports of illegal immigrants losing their property after being detained are common but rarely investigated.
At first glance, Evelyn seems like a normal, 16-year-old American girl. But if you spend a little time with her, as I did recently, you would learn that she is a little smarter and more thoughtful than most people her age. She has a 3.9 grade point average and ranks 13th in her class of about 130 students. She loves spending time at church and playing basketball with her boyfriend. Beyond all this, what makes Evelyn truly special is that she had to overcome a nightmarish childhood.
Story Behind the Story
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.