The Aftermath of the Ellensburg, WA Immigration Raid and Lessons from Past ICE Enforcement Efforts


BY JUAN PEDROZA, THE URBAN INSTITUTE*

On Thursday morning, January 20, ICE agents descended on mobile homes in the Ellensburg area, east of Seattle, WA. Federal agents drove in with 11 search warrants and a helicopter search light, making simultaneous arrests at 22 different locations. The coordinated effort followed an investigation involving eight federal, county, and local law enforcement entities. ICE agents arrested 14 Mexican immigrants for criminal charges (for instance, using false documents or falsely claiming U.S. citizenship) and then 16 others for non-criminal “administrative” violations. But the aftermath of the recent raid in Ellensburg replayed familiar scenes of trauma from past enforcement efforts—enforcement efforts upon which ICE can and should improve upon.

An ICE spokesperson quickly pointed out that the operation was “not a raid, not a sweep.” The arrests, however, represent a hybrid of ICE operations—something between paper audits and home arrests. During audits, employers identify unauthorized workers, who typically end up jobless (but not under arrest). During raids, Fugitive Operations Teams (FOTs) visit homes, often arresting fugitive absconders and non-fugitives alike. The January 20th arrests resemble aspects of audits and fugitive operations, and the coordinated enforcement approach has familiar consequences.

Accounts of the January 20th Ellensburg area arrests bring to mind three key findings from our studies at The Urban Institute. (See: Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement.) Between 2008 and 2009, we cataloged the experiences of 85 immigrant families in six locations across the country.

First, ICE can apply humanitarian release guidelines to worksite raids which result in at least 25 arrests. These guidelines have a positive impact on communities since reunited families typically fare better than separated families. In our study, early release dampened child- behavior and parental mental health problems. Families who remained intact were also better at coping with challenges after members’ arrest. Given such results, ICE should start applying humanitarian release guidelines in all itsoperations.

Take the recent Ellensburg, WA operation, for example, in which ICE applied humanitarian release guidelines even though the arrests were scattered across nearly two dozen homes. Three immigrants (none of whom face criminal charges) were released on the same day and await an immigration hearing. Within a week, ICE granted pre-trial release for 13 others. School officials contacted ICE and identified children at risk of being left unattended, which helped reunite families.

Second, arrests at family homes traumatize children and youth. An earlier study of ICE home arrests by the Immigration Justice Clinic (Cardozo Law School) cited instances where ICE agents kicked doors down while wielding firearms. We learned about these types of operations through interviews with 11 families affected by home arrests. In these cases, ICE agents nearly always arrested immigrants at gunpoint and usually in full view of children. Parents relayed how their children later displayed extreme withdrawal and dramatic behavior changes. Similarly, Ellensburg area parents reported the following: children have trouble sleeping; a child developed a nervous tick following his parent’s arrests; a baby lost weight after his breastfeeding mother was detained; and distressed students were unable to focus at school.

ICE agents entered family homes (in some cases, with guns drawn) during the Ellensburg area arrests. They arrested two parents and handcuffed their two teenage sons. Ricardo, 17, witnessed the entire event and recalled, “I opened the door and they pointed at me with a gun,” he said. “And I said, ‘can I please put a shirt on,’ and they said, ‘put your hands in the air.’ Then when I came out they handcuffed me and they did that to my 15-year-old brother.” Although never arrested, Ricardo told a reporter , “My heart was destroyed. I knew my life wasn’t going to be the same,” he said. “I felt bad for my older brother, because he’s almost 20 and he has to take care of a family now.” Given the damaging aftermath of home arrests, ICE should be mindful when executing warrants in people’s homes.

Finally, ongoing community support can help stabilize families’ economic and emotional distress after immigration arrests. Predictably, isolated families struggle more than those who receive assistance. The outpouring of support in Ellensburg can give families at least a toehold. Absent sustained material and in-kind donations, households go hungry and lose their homes. Amid these households’ uncertainty about the future, educators and counselors have an important role to play re-instilling a routine for families with school-age children.

ICE agents arrest hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year. Immigrant families and their communities live on the frontlines of enforcement operations. Potential opportunities such as early release and ongoing community support and the challenges associated with home arrests both argue for applying humanitarian release guidelines universally, great caution in executing warrants, and greater community involvement.

*Juan M. Pedroza is a Research Associates at The Urban Institute. The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation. The views expressed above are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Photo by ICE.gov.

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