Last March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began raiding the Canal district of San Rafael. In the early morning hours, federal immigration officers pulled up in green-and-white vans and began pounding on doors of houses, shouting "Police!" With them, they had arrest warrants for illegal immigrants; these were their last known addresses.
When the residents of the houses answered the door, the officers demanded proof that they were U.S. citizens. If they couldn't produce some form of ID, they were arrested. The officers didn't even allow them to dress, just handcuffed them and led them through the street in their underwear. Children were also arrested, according to witnesses, including at least one seven-year-old who is an American citizen.
Many of those arrested during the raids were not the people named on the warrants. If the person the officers came to arrest wasn't there, they simply demanded other people in the house prove their citizenship instead.
"In some cases, when someone poked his head out of his door to see what was going on, the officers saw it and used it to go into the house," alleges Tom Wilson of the Canal Community Alliance.
The raids were part of Operation Return to Sender, a program designed by the Department of Homeland Security to reduce illegal immigration. In the end, at least 55 people were arrested in Marin County.
Following the sweeps, many in the Canal's predominantly Latino neighborhood were terrified. Many children didn't show up for school. No one was sure how many people were arrested exactly, since information from ICE was hard to come by. Even elected officials like Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Boxer had a hard time getting clear answers, according to Wilson.
ICE also did not return calls for this article.
Following the raids, area groups held vigils and protests. Marin County supervisor Charles McGlashan compared the raids to something that might have happened in Nazi Germany. Many said that ICE's actions were racially motivated.
"They would go into a house and ask for Martin Lopez, and if he wasn't there, they would ask the status of everyone else in the house," Wilson says. "But if ICE went into Kentfield to arrest the nanny and she wasn't there, would they ask the rest of the people in the house where they were from? The answer is probably not."
Since the community outrage, ICE has stopped large-scale raids in Marin, although officers are still active in the area. The arrests are now on a house-by-house basis instead of large-scale sweeps.
But ICE's strategy doesn't end there. They have recently partnered with gang task forces at the Santa Rosa Police and Sonoma County Sheriff's departments. ICE officers are now riding along with local patrol cars to track down gang members who are in the country illegally.
"ICE came to us and said we want to work with you on this issue," says Matt McCaffrey, the captain in charge of field services for the sheriff's department. "They are looking for gang members who came into the country illegally or who have been deported and come back into the country."
The situation has drawn criticism from those who believe that the collaboration between ICE and local police is not just about targeting gang members, but any young Latino man who fits a certain profile.
"In a lot of cases, these are innocent young men who have never been gang members or who were in gangs a long time ago," says Richard Coshnear, an immigration attorney and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights. "The magnet members of the police detain the young men and then pass them over to the ICE agent."
Taking the Fourth
In July, a coalition of groups that included the Committee for Immigrant Rights as well as the ACLU, NAACP and the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County, staged an event called ICEcapades in Santa Rosa's Juilliard Park to protest ICE's involvement with local police. In addition to speeches and music, the event featured dolls frozen in blocks that slowly melted throughout the day, symbolizing immigrants' freedom from ICE.
The coalition wants Sonoma County to adopt policies similar to "sanctuary" cities like San Francisco and Oakland, which condemn raids and prohibit ICE from working with local police.
The problem, Coshnear believes, is that the partnership potentially violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects everyone in the United States—whether legally here or not—from unlawful search and seizure. An officer must have probable cause to detain a person on suspicion of criminal activity.
"If you're driving down the street with your left taillight out and an officer pulls you over, he must focus on traffic issues," says Coshnear. "He can't suddenly start searching your car for drugs without violating your Fourth Amendment right. It's the same thing with stopping someone for being in a gang. They are not allowed to ask about immigration unless there is a reasonable suspicion."
Coshnear represents several clients who allege that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated because of the partnership between ICE and Sonoma County police. One of these is Luis, who was pulled over by officers on Santa Rosa's Steele Lane for making an illegal left-hand turn. The officer walked up to the car and asked Luis for his ID. With shaking hands, Luis began to look through his wallet, even though he knew he didn't have an ID with him. At that point, he claims the officer snatched the wallet out of his hands, looked at it and turned it over to the ICE agent. A routine traffic stop turned into a deportation investigation.
Another client is Francisco, whose says his only crime was being a passenger in someone else's car. When an officer pulled the car over on the pretense of asking about the "For Sale" sign in the rearview window, Francisco claims the officers asked him to get out of the car, patted him down, took his wallet out, put it on the hood of the car and let the ICE officer question him. He is now in deportation hearings.
And then there's Jorge, who was arrested for getting into a fight with a protester. When he got to court, the judge dismissed the case when it became clear that Jorge hadn't thrown the first punch. As Jorge walked out of the courtroom, he says an officer stopped him and asked him for an ID, which Jorge said he didn't have on him. He was then detained for questioning until ICE came and brought him up on immigration charges.
"Even though he had just been acquitted of the charges against him, the officer had him arrested on immigration charges," Coshnear reiterates in amazement. "This is not a person who was involved in gangs. This was a way to punish someone who stood up for his rights and won."
The sheriff's department claims its only intention in collaborating with ICE is to make the county safer by curbing gang activity—something that has been positively received by the Latino community.
"We're not out there targeting Mexican immigrants; we're targeting gang members who are in the country illegally," McCaffrey says. "When you talk to people who live in these communities, they are fearful to be living with gang members. The ones I've talked to think this is the greatest thing ever."
McCaffrey admits, however, that ICE may make arrests that are not related to the county's anti-gang agenda.
"There's always the possibility that when ICE is out with us, they may make an arrest on their own," says McCaffrey. "Quite frankly, that's their business. That's their job: to target people who came into the country illegally."
In truth, it's hard to tell whether racial profiling plays into policies like the ones that ICE is establishing in the North Bay. After all, the biggest percentage of illegal immigrants in California is Mexican, so it may simply appear to be racial profiling from the outside looking in. On the other hand, there haven't been any raids on illegal immigrants who are European or Canadian, either.
"If the actions were about immigration, truly, it would probably be more even-handed," Wilson charges. "The decisions that are being made seem to be focusing on the Latino community or work places populated with Latino workers. There are a number of undocumented people from Ireland in Marin County, and you don't hear about crackdowns of this nature with them. It is about stopping what people see as a growing number of brown people in their community."
Other groups believe ICE is righting a wrong that has been going on for too long. Save Our State, a San Bernardino organization that works against illegal immigration in California, regularly stages protests in towns like Graton, where migrant workers are known to congregate for work.
Contrary to popular belief, the group's focus isn't against Latino people so much as it's against corruption, says spokesperson David Rodrigues.
"The facilitation of corruption in our government and businesses is strong," he says. "It's hard to beat. People work here illegally, we support them with our taxes while they cheat the system, and then the politicians are bribed with all the free money floating around out there. The politicians have a moneyed interest to say, 'Hide, and we'll take care of you.'"
In his work with Save Our State, Rodrigues focuses on businesses that employ illegal immigrants. He has personally confronted employers who hire immigrants and gathered evidence against them to report to the government. If it weren't financially beneficial for immigrants to come here, he reasons, there would be less incentive for them to come in illegally.
Rodrigues admits, however, that he can't tell how much his own racism plays into his beliefs.
"Fraud and corruption are my focus," he says. "When that is out of the way, whether I'm one-tenth or 100 percent racist, I don't know. I might be a little bit racist. Hell, most people are. Who could be that perfect?"
Immigrants aren't the only people who have to deal with potential racial profiling. Since 2005, African-American residents of Marin City, near San Rafael, have complained that the Marin County Sheriff's Department is using the area as training ground for new officers.
Residents claim that they have been harassed, manhandled or otherwise discriminated against by police. Others complain that they have been pulled over by police for no discernable reason, a phenomenon nicknamed "driving while being brown."
"We get a fair amount of calls from Marin City citizens who tell stories that allege abuse of power by law enforcement," says Cesar Lagleva, chair of the Marin County Human Rights Commission, which acts in an advisory role to the Marin County Board of Supervisors. "We have enough data supporting these complaints to say that this is a pattern in Marin City."
Abuse of power isn't direct racism, but it can be a sign of it, Lagleva believes.
"I can't say for sure that this is a race-based issue, but it does seem to be an abuse of power," he says. "Racism is a broad term, but one symptom of racism is abuse of power."
The sheriff's department does do training in Marin City, as well as by the Marin Civic Center. However, the county says that it employs no racial profiling. "We choose both areas where we currently train because they are the biggest and busiest areas," says Sgt. Mike Crain. "We have more calls for service there."
Still, when biases are tested in the North Bay, the results can be surprising. Fair Housing of Marin regularly does audits on racial biases in Marin County and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma County. They test whether property owners are equally willing to rent apartments to African Americans and Latinos as they are to Caucasians.
To do this, Fair Housing sends two applicants to the same apartment complex and looks at how they are treated by the renter. The applicants are comparable in every way—similar jobs, income levels and rental history. The only major difference between them is that one of them is black and the other is white.
"The last audit we did, we found something like 35 percent deferential treatment against African Americans," says executive director Nancy Kenyon. "The time before that was 42 percent. That means that at least a third of the African Americans are treated differently when they go to look at renting a place."
Sometimes these differences are subtle. An African American may be told he will have to wait six months for a unit to become available, while a Caucasian will be told just two months. Other times, they are more audacious: a black person is quoted a higher rent or security deposit than a white person, or will be steered away from living in the complex altogether. The renter may make the "friendly" suggestion that a black applicant would be more comfortable living in this other complex in another part of town—one that also happens to have multi-race people in it.
Fair Housing of Marin has also done audits looking at biases against Latino people. In these cases, they've compared how those with a Spanish name and accent are treated over the phone compared to a person with an Anglo-American or European name and American accent. They found that 40 percent of the Latino callers were either not called back or called back and given information that was different from what was given to the white caller.
Biases of this sort are illegal under the Fair Housing Act, which says that people cannot be denied housing based on certain factors, including race and color. Still, biases can be hard to prove, since racism is based on thought. On top of that, motives for racism are different. One renter may have a grudge against a certain type of people. Another may dislike something about a particular culture.
"In one complex we worked with, the owner complained that every evening his Latino tenants would come out to the common ground and the husbands would have a beer and the kids would run into each other's houses and the mothers would chat," says Kenyon. "And the owner said, 'The Asians here don't do that!' He hadn't thought that this was a cultural difference he was reacting to."
Like that property owner, people aren't always aware of their biases, especially in a place that thinks of itself as liberal and open-minded. It's one of the reasons the Human Rights Commission is planning a community-wide dialogue later this year to draw attention to issues around race and class in Marin County.
"As much as we're considered an enlightened and liberal area, racism is well and alive here," Lagleva says. "There's a misconceived notion that there is no racism here, so our problems get swept under the rug. There's an assumption that we're a bastion of insight and liberalism, but it's to the contrary.
"It's really to the contrary."