Following the massacre at an El Paso Walmart on Saturday, which appears to have been perpetrated by a white supremacist targeting Americans of Latinx origins, Immigration and Customs Enforcement tells Pacific Standard that it did not conduct operations during response efforts, contrary to what it described as "false rumors" that it had.
"Despite false rumors to the contrary, ICE does not conduct immigration enforcement operations during tragedies like the one that recently impacted El Paso, Texas," an agency spokesperson wrote to Pacific Standard on Monday. "This is not a time to compound one tragedy upon another by spreading fear in our community with false rumors of ICE operations. Instead we must stand as one community to focus on aiding the victims and their families."
The ICE spokesperson did not specify the exact nature and source of the rumors about ICE enforcement, which remain unclear. But immigrant rights advocates say such rumors likely stem from ICE's own enforcement practices: The agency has continued to detain immigrants during routine encounters with local law enforcement and at public venues like courthouses and government offices. The rumors may have also specifically emerged from sightings of ICE agents amid response efforts.
ICE agents were indeed present on the scene, the ICE spokesperson says, but with a view to help "state, local, and federal law enforcement partners as part of an all-law-enforcement-agency response to an unprecedented and horrific event."
"We always render aid to communities in distress and to our law enforcement partners," the spokesperson adds.
Some activists questioned ICE's words of reassurance. "It is nearly impossible to believe an agency that has been constantly lying to the public and to the immigrant community," says Maricela Gutiérrez, executive director of Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network advocacy group. Gutiérrez adds that it is the very partnerships with law enforcement that ICE has formed that scare immigrants who may need public services in times of crisis. Those partnerships "can make community members hesitant to even reach out to local police or even the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] to share evidence. ICE states that they responded to state and local law enforcement agencies to 'aid' when the shootings occurred; any presence or involvement by ICE is very concerning and will chill community members' participation in any law enforcement investigations."
Since Donald Trump took office, his administration has engaged in a tug-of-war with its opponents in state and municipal administrations over the degree to which federal immigration agents can legally cooperate with local law enforcement. Critics of such cooperations say that they discourage immigrant communities from cooperating with police to solve crimes and seek justice. Paired with reports of ICE detaining immigrants at courthouses and when they attend routine United States Citizenship and Immigration Service appointments, reassurances from ICE, experts say, may do little to assuage concerns that seeking help after Saturday's massacre would eventually land El Paso immigrants in deportation proceedings.
"Given the culture of fear that [the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol] have created, immigrant families (often with mixed statuses) will be loath to trust law enforcement for fear of putting their families at risk," says Bernardo Rafael Cruz, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "During [2017's deadly Hurricane] Harvey, as DHS assisted with rescue attempts, immigrant families feared seeking help."
Cruz says he hopes ICE will abide by its commitment to not enforce during tragedies, but that the ACLU will be monitoring whether it does. "In the past, DHS has been reticent about refraining from enforcement during crises. For example, during the lead up to Harvey, DHS refused to state publicly that it would not stop and detain people at checkpoints who were traveling to escape the storm. Only after public pressure did it agree to stop," Cruz says.
Even with the agency's insistence that it will not enforce amid response efforts, Cruz advises immigrants in El Paso and elsewhere to consult the ACLU's webpage on what to do in interactions with immigration enforcement and to download an app the organization designed to help people involved in those interactions.