It's legal for an immigration agent to pretend to be a police officer outside someone's door. But should it be?

During a nationwide operation this month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a team of ICE agents in Los Angeles approached the house of a man targeted for deportation.

“Good morning, police,” one agent announced in the pre-dawn darkness. 

A man opened the door moments later.

“Good morning, how you doing? I’m a police officer. We’re doing an investigation,” the agent said.

The exchange, captured on a video released publicly by ICE, seemed routine. But it has reignited long-simmering objections from immigrant rights attorneys and advocates, who say the scene illustrates unethical — and in some cases, illegal —  ruses ICE agents have used for years, portraying themselves as officers from local police departments to ensnare people or fool them into revealing the whereabouts of family members.

The use of the tactic, critics said, is particularly egregious in heavily immigrant cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where police and elected officials have tried for decades to distinguish their cops from federal immigration agents, in an effort to convince immigrants living illegally in their cities that they can interact with local police without fear of deportation. The practice of using ruses predates the Trump administration. But the president’s announcement of his intent to dramatically increase the number of people ICE apprehends for deportation has increased concerns by immigrant advocates that the tactic will grow even more prevalent.

“There is something fundamentally unfair about ICE exploiting local and state policies that are trying to improve public safety by promoting immigrants’ trust in law enforcement,” said Frances Miriam Kreimer, senior attorney at Dolores Street Community Services in San Francisco.

Kreimer is challenging the legality of a ruse ICE officers used to arrest a client, in which they told the man they were police officers investigating a crime.

Internally, ruses are allowed and encouraged by ICE officials, who describe them in training manuals and policy notices as an effective tool at agents’ disposal for dictating when and how an arrest is made.

Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, declined to address questions about the use of ruses, saying the agency does not comment on tactics out of concern for agents’ safety and the effectiveness of its operations. The tactics agents use, she said in a statement, “are consistent with their authorities under federal law and in accordance with the Constitution.”

Ruses and other types of deceit are used at all levels of law enforcement. Courts have long upheld the right of police, to a point, to mislead suspects during investigations and interrogations.

But the legal questions surrounding the use of ruses by immigration agents are more complicated.

There is nothing illegal about ICE agents simply identifying themselves as police officers while standing outside someone’s front door. However, agents generally are not armed with search or arrest warrants when they try to detain someone on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Without a warrant, they cannot force their way into someone’s home and, instead must receive consent from an adult to enter.

In a few cases in which ICE agents used deception to gain entry and then arrested someone, lawyers have successfully argued the ruses ran afoul of constitutional protections.

In one such case, ICE agents in Texas went to the door of an apartment early one morning in December 2008 and identified themselves as police, in search of a man they suspected of having re-entered the country illegally after being deported. The man’s mother answered their knocks. Fearing that she wouldn’t let them in if they showed her a photo of her son, the agents showed her a photo of another man, according to court records.

After the woman told them the man was not inside, the agents pressed her to allow them in to check. The woman and the agents gave differing accounts in court of whether she consented, but once inside the agents found neither the man in photo nor the woman’s son. The agents, however, awoke another man, his wife and infant child asleep and inquired about their immigration status and arrested the man for being in the country illegally.

The judge in the case found that even if the woman did agree to allow the agents inside, as they claimed, they had misled her so thoroughly it rendered her consent meaningless and violated the Constitution’s protections against warrantless searches and seizures. The judge did not allow any statements or other evidence the agents gathered in the house to be used against the man in his trial.

In the Los Angeles raid this month, the video released by ICE doesn’t show how agents went from announcing themselves as police to entering the house or whether someone was taken into custody as a result.

The Immigrant Defense Project and Center for Constitutional Rights, along with other advocacy groups, have documented dozens of arrests in recent years in which witnesses or people arrested say ICE agents used deceit while targeting people for deportation.

In one case, ICE agents in Los Angeles identified themselves as police detectives to the mother of Luis Enrique Cruz Estrada, saying her son had information regarding the whereabouts of a person they wanted to find, according to attorney Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

For weeks, the agents called Estrada on his cellphone, allegedly urging him to meet them in order to discuss their investigation. Estrada, who had a conviction in juvenile court for possession of a firearm when he was 15 and now has two small children, ultimately agreed to meet and was arrested, Pasquarella said. He is currently being held at an immigration detention facility in Adelanto.

ICE officials addressed the question of ruses a decade ago after agents pretending to be officials from the government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration staged a meeting for immigrant workers in North Carolina and arrested people who attended.

After OSHA officials protested, ICE leaders issued a series of policy changes that allowed ruses to continue but required agents to get the permission from any government body or private group before impersonating them in a ruse.

In a memo implementing the change, the acting ICE director at the time wrote that permission was needed “to ensure the agency or entity’s name who we wish to use as cover has an opportunity to raise concerns about how our use of their name will affect their public image or raise security concerns for their employees.”

That concern is particularly acute in cities and towns where the police and elected officials have taken steps not to cooperate with efforts by ICE agents to identify and apprehend immigrants simply because they are in the country illegally.

In Los Angeles, where a recent Pew study estimated the population of people in the country illegally at 375,000 , police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti have gone to significant lengths to advocate for the rights of immigrants and distance the LAPD’s work from the immigration enforcement agency’s.

Beck, for example, has tightened rules on when his officers can impound vehicles, arguing that immigrants unable to get driver’s licenses were unfairly burdened. And, under Beck, the LAPD does not honor requests from ICE agents to hold someone in custody who would otherwise be released.

“When you create a shadow population ... that fears any interaction” with law enforcement, Beck said in a recent interview with The Times, “then you create a whole population of victims, because they become prey for human predators who extort them or abuse them because they know they won't contact the police.”

Beck and Garcetti have renewed their stance since the election of Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. Acting on an executive order Trump signed soon after taking office, administration officials this week dramatically expanded the federal government's deportation priorities, saying immigration enforcement officers are free to target any of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally for removal.

LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore declined to comment on the use of ruses by ICE. He said LAPD officers go out of their way to clearly identify their department whenever interviewing or interrogating someone.

This week, Pasquarella said the ACLU will formally ask Beck, Garcetti and the City Council to take steps to ensure that ICE agents are not identifying themselves as LAPD officers.

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