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.

Customs and Border Protection can patrol the area 100 miles from any external boundary of the United States, including the coasts.; Credit: Courtesy ACLU

Customs and Border Protection can patrol the area 100 miles from any external boundary of the United States, including the coasts.; Credit: Courtesy ACLU

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.