Rumors of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent sightings that spread in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park over the last several days are untrue, ICE spokesman and East Palo Alto police spokespersons said.
Many East Palo Alto residents, about two-thirds of whom are immigrants mainly from Mexico and the Pacific Islands (according to Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto), besieged police and school district officials with calls regarding the rumors, which began to spread on Friday, Feb. 24, officials said. They ranged from alerts through emails and Twitter to a bogus photograph of Department of Homeland Security vehicles posted on Facebook.
ICE operations are not taking place in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View or Palo Alto, agency spokesman James Schwab said. These kinds of rumors "make issues for the community at large and the ICE officers and it is taking up valuable resources for local police," he added.
The original rumor, that men wearing jackets emblazoned with ICE on the back and dressed in khaki pants had stopped someone at the Shell gas station on University Avenue at Bell Street, set off alarms through East Palo Alto. Community networks warned people of the sighting. The purported agents allegedly approached an individual at the gas station and asked to see his papers, according to a letter posted on Twitter that was purportedly by an unnamed source.
Other alleged sightings indicated ICE agents were waiting in front of East Palo Alto elementary schools, at a checkpoint at the Chevron gas station on University Avenue and in Menlo Park along intersections of Willow Road.
A photograph posted on Facebook showed two Department of Homeland Security field operations squad cars parked on a street, allegedly in East Palo Alto except that the buildings and streetlights shown in the image are not in East Palo Alto, police confirmed.
"Totally not East Palo Alto," police Commander Jeff Liu said.
One Twitter posting claimed that an immigration workshop scheduled at a community center for Friday was canceled because of the sightings.
The letter posted on Twitter discussing the purported Shell station sighting explained that an earlier alert sent through its email network was based on a reported sighting of ICE agents and a coincidental sighting of an ICE vehicle either at the gas station or stopped while traveling eastbound toward the Dumbarton Bridge. The letter sought to clarify that police had spoken to ICE and there were no agent operations in East Palo Alto.
The message also claimed that police are concerned that persons might be impersonating ICE officers to extort money from victimized immigrants. But Liu did not specifically confirm that concern.
"We explore all options every time one of these rumors surfaces. We have no evidence that anything related to these rumors have any factual basis," he said in text messages. The rumors "have put a lot of people in a state of unnecessary fear and stress."
Police don't know whether any part of this rumor is true, including the presence of an ICE van refueling.
"A number of things could have started this rumor and nothing has been ruled out," he said.
Addressing concerns of potential extortion, Schwab did not rule out that impersonators could potentially commit such crimes, but ICE agents do not demand money from anyone. If people think someone is trying to shake them down or might be impersonating an ICE officer, they should not give them any money and should contact their local police department immediately, officials said.
ICE does have a community relations officer who can confirm if operations are taking place in an area. But Schwab stressed that the general public should not contact the officer, as the department cannot respond to general calls. The contact number is for local governments, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations only. The general public should contact local leaders and officials for information if they are concerned. Local governments and community nonprofit groups can contact the community relations officer at 415-844-5866, 415-745-5208 or by email at [email protected]
ICE has conducted at least one well-publicized operation in the Bay Area that appears to have sparked rumors throughout local immigrant communities. On Feb. 13, ICE Homeland Security Investigations led a multiple-agency operation involving federal search and arrest warrants at 11 locations in Santa Cruz, Daly City, and Watsonville.
The action was part of an ongoing criminal investigation targeting alleged criminal activity by suspected members of a notorious transnational gang, the department said in a statement provided by Schwab. The operation was the culmination of a five-year investigation, which resulted in the arrest of 10 criminal organization members on federal criminal charges.
During that operation, 11 additional undocumented people were detained when ICE officers arrived at the locations. They were initially held on administrative immigration violations due to their association with suspected members of a transnational street gang. But 10 of those individuals were released. One remains in agency custody due to his criminal history and possible ties to the ongoing investigation, the statement said.
The statement stressed that juveniles were never left unattended at any time during the operations.
The ICE Special Agent-in-Charge office in San Francisco notified the Santa Cruz police chief that any non-targeted foreign nationals encountered during the enforcement actions at the search-and-arrest locations would be held briefly until the agency could determine their identities and case histories. The Santa Cruz Police Department did not take custody of any of these people or place them in their facility or police vehicles.
Rumors that came out of that operation, some of which appeared politically based, are "completely false, reckless, and disturbing," the statement said.