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Without Warrants, Immigration Agents Often Pose As Police Officers


Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have a lot of different ways to find and arrest immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. ICE officers can't enter someone's residence without a warrant, but they often don't have a warrant when they're out trying to detain someone. So one common strategy they use is to describe themselves as police officers to get people to let them in the door or tell them where a person of interest is. And it works.

For the most part, it's legal. But critics say the practice interferes with the efforts of local police departments to build trust with immigrant communities. Joel Rubin of the LA Times has written about this. He's here to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

JOEL RUBIN: Hey, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, your piece begins with the description of this video from ICE, and it shows several law enforcement officers outside a home. It's just before dawn. One of them goes to the door, and then we hear this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Morning - police.

CORNISH: All right, so it's hard to hear, but he identifies himself as a police officer. He doesn't say he's from an immigration agency.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Inaudible) investigation.

CORNISH: So he says, I'm a police officer, and we're doing an investigation. How common is this tactic? I mean is it always police officers? Do they pose as other kinds of agents?

RUBIN: Typically when we talk about these types of ruses, it is police or a police officer that is being invoked by the ICE agent as opposed to another type of agency. You know, technically speaking, the ICE agents are law enforcement officers, but certainly when somebody hears, police - open up, or, I'm a police officer, they're not thinking immigration. They're thinking the local cop on the street. As far as we can tell, it's pretty common. It is sort of the default language that ICE agents use when they knock on the door.

CORNISH: You write this tactic is even included in the manual - like, the handbook for training.

RUBIN: Yeah, it is written into ICE's policies and training manuals. It's an encouraged tactic. There are some ground rules that they set for how and when you can use these ruses, but they are certainly seen as a tool in the ICE agent's toolbox that they should use when trying to detain somebody.

CORNISH: Help us understand the legality of this. I mean has there been a situation where the courts have said, hey, you've gone too far?

RUBIN: There has been at least one. The real legal question here is, how do ICE agents gain access into somebody's home when they are trying to look for somebody for detention and possible deportation? They almost never have a warrant that a judge has issued that grants them the authority to go into somebody's house. Instead, they need to get consent from an adult at the house or the apartment before they can enter. And so the legal fight often arises when a ruse is used in order to gain access into somebody's home.

CORNISH: Right. You talk about one case in 2008 where ICE agents came to the door, IDed themselves as police and, once they got inside, actually arrested someone just, like, completely unrelated to the investigation at hand.

RUBIN: Right, right, exactly. They were looking for one man and knocked on his mom's door. She answers, and they were afraid that if they showed her a picture of her son, that she would not be helpful. So they in fact showed her a picture of another person. When she said, I've never seen that person before, they pressed her and said, well, can we please come in and just take a look around and make sure he's not hiding?

And once they were inside, they found a third man and his family and woke him up and ended up arresting him for being in the country illegally. And the courts found that that was just a step too far, that if anything, the only person they could be searching for was the man in the photo. But they certainly didn't have the right to come in and start just randomly asking people for their immigration status. So the courts have in rare circumstances set limits on how these ruses can be used.

CORNISH: Joel Rubin writes for the LA Times. Thank you for speaking with us.

RUBIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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