Manuel Mosqueda, a housepainter by trade, was in his shorts, getting ready for work at 5 a.m. on Thursday, when he got a knock at the apartment door.
Mosqueda, 50, lives in Van Nuys with his fiancée, and it was she who went to investigate the knock, propping open the outer door a crack. The men in the hallway wore flak jackets and looked to her like police.
A security camera mounted in the hallway filmed what happened next. One of the men seizes the outer door, pulling it open all the way, and enters the apartment. Three other men follow him in.
Later that morning, Marlene Mosqueda, 21, the youngest of Manuel's four children, received an alarming text from her father's fiancée. It said: “They took your dad.”
The predawn visitors were gone when Marlene reached the apartment, but they had left a calling card of sorts, a paper like a tear-off ticket at the bottom of a flier. It had the phone number for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
“My dad was not a criminal,” Mosqueda tells L.A. Weekly. “And for them to take my dad, a hardworking dad — it sparks something inside of me.”
Mosqueda is believed to be the first person to come forward about the sweeps that ICE conducted last week, when the agency arrested 161 people over a five-day period in Southern California. The sweeps were part of a nationally coordinated “enforcement surge” that netted 680 arrests in 11 U.S. states. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a statement released on Monday that, of the detainees from the operation, “Approximately 75 percent were criminal aliens.”
But immigrant rights advocates in L.A. say that many of those who were arrested have administrative orders for removal but no criminal records and do not pose a threat to the community. It is the first significant enforcement operation of the Trump presidency, and the first test of whether and to what degree the new president has broadened the definition of “criminal alien” to include any undocumented person arrested for any crime.
Previously, under President Obama, the term referred to an individual who posed a threat to the community, someone arrested for serious crimes.
On Saturday, ICE director of enforcement and removal for the L.A. field office David Marin claimed the enforcement sweep in California was already being planned before Trump took office. Marin compared it to a similar enforcement operation last year that netted 112 arrests.
But Trump appeared to take credit for the sweeps on Sunday morning, tweeting: “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”
On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order that changes a few policies related to immigration. It orders the secretary of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 more immigration officers, create a publicly available weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and review previous immigration policies. Most notably, the order strips federal grant money to so-called sanctuary cities.
ICE states that 94 percent of those arrested in Southern California — a full 151 out of 161 — “had prior criminal convictions.” On a fact sheet, the agency even separated the convictions into categories, such as “domestic violence,” “drug offenses” and “assault” — data that immigrant rights advocates in L.A. have struggled to confirm.
Legal advocates, led by attorneys for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), have been scrambling since Thursday to gather data on the targeted sweeps, and they claim that information has been difficult to obtain in part because ICE did not respect detainees' customary right to counsel.
CHIRLA officials say they were not informed of what ICE is calling an “enforcement surge” until Wednesday night, nearly three days after it had begun. An attorney in private practice informed them, after learning of a large operation from an officer at the ICE processing center downtown.
CHIRLA has received calls about enforcement actions from people in 66 communities in six counties of Southern California. Many of the areas targeted in and around L.A. are mostly Latino, with large immigrant populations: Santa Paula, Downey, Bell, Bell Gardens, Van Nuys and East L.A..
The group acknowledges that a majority of the ICE arrests were targeted, and that a number of those arrested were on probation. But CHIRLA says none of the detainees have met the Obama-era threshold of posing a “threat to the community.”
“There is supposed to be a list of priorities,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director for CHIRLA. “There is also supposed to be a sense of respect for families and immigrants. It was not always respected (under Obama), but there was that sense.”
Karla Navarrete, a staff attorney at CHIRLA, says they were informed of multiple cases in which ICE arrested an individual during a routine visit with a probation officer. “There is a big collaboration going on with probation officers,” Navarrete says. “Now that there is pressure on jails [not to release information], ICE is looking for other ways to get records.”
Navarrete says many individuals arrested in the sweeps have no criminal record. They were arrested, and in numerous cases promptly deported, after ICE ran background checks and learned they had immigration violations.
She says the criminal histories of the deportees she has confirmed include mostly minor infractions, such as DUIs and petty shoplifting. A plainclothes ICE agent entered a Target store last week and arrested an employee who had a simple battery conviction from a fistfight, she says. One woman in Bakersfield was picked up at criminal court when she showed up to serve a one-day jail sentence for DUI.
Navarrete says those individuals with criminal records arrested in the sweeps most often took plea deals for convictions for property damage, DUIs or domestic violence — but none for gang activity, drug trafficking or more violent crimes.
The largest category of those arrested by ICE, she says, were victims of a scam in which the nonlegal service providers known in Spanish-speaking communities as notarios incorrectly filed applications to immigration court for work permits that were subsequently rejected. This was what happened to Manuel Mosqueda, she says, who was ordered by a judge to leave the country and was exploring his legal options to remain in the country at the time of his arrest.
CHIRLA has received more than 100 voicemails on a hotline set up to monitor ICE activity in L.A.,
— many more calls than its staffers can return in a timely manner. So the group is urging families to report arrests in person. Ten families have come to the office since Friday, and many others have contacted CHIRLA through private attorneys.
One question that persists is what, if anything, is different about these latest sweeps, compared to when the Obama administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders from 2009 to 2015.
Virginia C. Kice, a senior spokeswoman for ICE, tells L.A. Weekly, “I would argue these enforcement actions aren’t unique.” Kice points to a series of targeted enforcement actions taken under the Obama administration in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015, which netted 10 to nearly 20 times as many arrests as occurred last week.
CHIRLA says the difference is that Trump’s definition of “criminal alien” does away with priorities of the Obama administration.
Says Cabrera: “It feels as if all bets are off now in that anyone and everyone is a target.”
On Thursday, as legal advocates were only beginning to realize the scope of the operation, vanloads of detainees were already being removed to Tijuana, those advocates say. CHIRLA says that in numerous cases an enforcement action was over almost before legal advocates learned it was taking place. One man reportedly was picked up at John’s Supermarket in Koreatown. By the time the attorneys arrived, it was over.
Navarrete drove downtown with an initial group of four attorneys to request information from ICE. She says she asked an ICE officer if she could to talk to individuals being detained, and that he asked her to be more specific, that there were “a hundred people back there.”
“That’s not normal,” Navarrete says.
In the two hours she was downtown, Navarrete says, she saw five vans and one busload of presumed deportees. “I saw people being moved with plainclothes,” she says. “Once they're deported, they're not in jumpers anymore. They were in plainclothes, and I know they were going to Tijuana.”
Manuel Mosqueda's daughter Marlene contacted CHIRLA on Thursday and met Navarrete at the federal booking center downtown, known as Building 18.
With assistance from Navarrete and other attorneys, Marelene eventually got the chance to see her dad through a glass divider. “Dad told me, 'It’s going to be OK, don’t worry,'” she says. “'They’re telling me they’re going to deport me regardless if I sign or not.'”
Navarrete says ICE was moving quickly to deport Mosqueda but that she and a team of attorneys at CHIRLA obtained an emergency stay of deportation on his behalf from federal court, which forced ICE to remove him from the Tijuana-bound bus and return him to L.A.
It wasn't easy. A stay of deportation is filed locally with the ICE officer on duty, and Navarrete says the first officer denied the stay, telling her, by way of explanation, that “things have changed.”
“It seems as though ICE as a whole feels liberated,” Navarrete says. “I feel like it’s just a different time.”
Marlene Mosqueda says she spoke to her father on the phone on Monday. ICE had transferred him to the detention center in Adelanto. “I told him to be strong, to not get down on himself,” she says. “He told me to be strong, too. Then he couldn’t talk no more. He started crying.”
Navarrete says Manuel Mosqueda faces an uphill battle to secure his release. He will not be entitled to a hearing for bond until six months have passed.
Marelene, a student at L.A. Mission College, recalled how she used to tease her father about how his fingers were always coated in dabs of white paint from work.
“I can’t believe they’re sending him straight to Tijuana without court, without a right to see a judge and have a judge say what should be done,” she says. “I didn’t expect I would be in this position. It just opened my eyes a lot as to what’s really going on.”