On April 24, a team of agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection descended on a Boyle Heights apartment complex and seized what they later reported to be more than 30 pounds of cocaine and $600,000. The size of the drug haul seemed to overshadow the unusual fact that the agency that secures America's borders was working in an Eastside neighborhood more than 130 miles north of Tijuana.
Then, on May 18, the border agency returned to Boyle Heights and arrested seven more people.
Mark Endicott, a supervisory agent with the Border Patrol in San Diego, acknowledges it's uncommon for the agency to conduct enforcement operations in Los Angeles. "We do work from time to time in L.A.," Endicott says. "It's not something that occurs on a regular basis or very often at all."
None of the seven people arrested in May was charged with a drug offense, according to CBP. And while the agency partnered with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on the cocaine bust, it carried out the May enforcement operation on its own, according to Endicott.
Legal advocates are beginning to wonder if the border agency, which has the authority to operate immigration checkpoints and to detain people without a warrant on the suspicion of being in the country illegally, is raising its profile in L.A. — and assuming a greater share of responsibilities from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There definitely are lots of concerns about CBP engaging in operations in central L.A.,” says Emi MacLean, a staff attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network who is investigating the circumstances of the Boyle Heights arrests. "We don’t want them to be bringing the border up to the center of Los Angeles."
Endicott declined to compare the agency's activities last year with this year, saying the data isn't available. "I don't know if I can say there's an increase in activity in the L.A. area," he says.
One thing is certain: The second wave of arrests by CBP in Boyle Heights caused a stir, in large part because the agency went in targeting Cal State L.A. student and immigrant rights activist Claudia Rueda. Endicott says Rueda and the others were targeted in relation to the drug investigation — which Rueda's attorney denies.
"What's contradictory is that in the same breath the Border Patrol alludes to Claudia's involvement in criminal activity, it says she's in their custody for immigration violations only," says the attorney, Monika Langarica. Rueda was released from custody June 9 and has since applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers some protections to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors.
Rueda's mother, Teresa Vidal-Jaime, was swept up in the April 24 drug raid at the apartment complex where they live; she was not charged with a crime but later was found to be overstaying her visa. Vidal-Jaime’s husband, Hugo Rueda, was one of the men arrested on suspicion of drug possession.
In the weeks before her arrest, Claudia Rueda spearheaded a public campaign led by the Los Angeles Immigrant Youth Coalition calling for her mother’s release. MacLean and other supporters say Rueda's arrest has the markings of retaliation from CBP.
Endicott says Rueda's arrest was related only to the cocaine bust in April.
The federal statute regulating Customs and Border Protection states only that the agency may enforce the law a “reasonable distance” from the border. The rule of thumb is 100 miles, though that distance is only a guideline from the Justice Department and is not strictly enforced. The "100-mile rule" applies to any external boundary of the United States, including its coasts, which is how L.A. is included.
“Roughly two-thirds of the United States’ population, about 200 million people, lives within the 100-mile zone that an outdated federal regulation defines as the border zone," states a fact sheet produced by the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office.
In 1993, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Border Patrol exceeded its authority in conducting a search 235 miles from the border in New Mexico. In 2012, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the Border Patrol over the practice of setting up vehicle checkpoints in Washington state — up to 200 miles from the Canadian border. The CBP settled the lawsuit and agreed to retrain agents.
The ACLU has argued for Congress and the Justice Department to limit CBP to a radius of no more than 25 miles from the border, or 10 miles for raids of private property.
Legal advocates have been critical of CBP for what they say is the agency’s lack of transparency about its activities, particularly enforcement actions that occur far from the border. The ACLU of San Diego sued Customs and Border Patrol in 2015 to obtain records of the agency's enforcement activities beyond the 100-mile radius of the Mexican border. Attorneys from the ACLU of San Diego provided L.A. Weekly the records of 21 such enforcement actions conducted in the Greater Los Angeles area between January 2011 and July 2014.
The documents, which are not a comprehensive list of all such apprehensions, are mostly field reports from roving patrols of uniformed agents in marked service vehicles. The majority of arrests occurred in the desert region of San Bernardino or Riverside counties, with a few in Orange County.
There were five documented interior enforcement operations in L.A. County, all of which occurred in Long Beach in 2011, when L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was the chief of police. As sheriff, McDonnell faced a backlash this spring for opposing California legislation that would prevent sheriff's departments from sharing information about undocumented immigrants with ICE. Compared with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, McDonnell has expressed a greater willingness to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
The 2011 reports outline the arrests of Mexican laborers walking down the street in Long Beach. One report states that agents from the San Clemente Border Patrol Station were “called in to translate” for a Long Beach police officer who had arrested a Mexican boat cleaner from Huntington Beach.
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Customs and Border Protection has significantly stepped up its interior enforcement activities nationwide over the past decade, according to Mitra Ebadolahi, a staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego who is suing the agency. CBP's budget more than doubled between 2006 and 2014 — from $6 billion to $12.9 billion, Ebadolahi says. At the same time, the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents — from desert agents on horseback to inspectors at airports — ballooned from about 12,000 to more than 21,000
The 2018 budget would support bringing on 500 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new ICE officers.
“If you were to plot the trajectory of their interior actions," Ebadolahi says, "it would be an upward slope."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the location of the Río Grande; the reference has been removed.