In Trump Era, L.A. Social Workers Seek Tighter Collaboration with Immigration Officers

As President Donald Trump moves to expand deportations of undocumented immigrants, a team of rapid-response social workers in Los Angeles is hoping it can come to the aid of children who may be left behind or endangered by immigration enforcement actions.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services’ Multi-Agency Response Team, known as MART,  has been sending specially trained social workers to the scenes of law enforcement busts for years. It now hopes to work alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency tasked with enforcing immigration law, so that social workers will be present in the event that children are involved when agents make arrests.

MART often works with law enforcement agencies including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the county’s Sheriff’s Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). When children are involved, the team is there to shield them from dangerous situations and helps find them placement with family members or in protective custody.

Emilio Mendoza, head of the MART team, said he’s eager to begin working alongside immigration officers. For now, MART hasn’t been asked by ICE to participate in immigration raids.

“The calls are not coming in,” Mendoza said.

ICE says it already has safeguards in place to ensure children are not left unaccompanied by its enforcement actions.

“Virtually never do we enter a location where a child would be left alone,” an ICE official said.

‘It’s About Relationships’

MART specializes in responding to busts, crime scenes and probation sweeps in which some combination of children, drugs and weapons are expected to be present. The idea is to begin providing DCFS services faster than waiting for a call to come in through the department’s hotline.

Mendoza said the MART team has rescued about 1,500 children a year since its founding in 2004. MART promises law enforcement partners that its team won’t compromise their undercover operations, and asks in return that those agencies conduct operations in a way that won’t compromise children’s safety.

“Like most things, it’s about relationships,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza’s vision for a closer relationship with ICE is rooted in a past collaboration.

About a decade ago, MART worked closely with the ICE office in Los Angeles, Mendoza says. MART, for example, collaborated in a human trafficking crackdown headed up by ICE and the FBI in 2006 that led to the rescue of five Guatemalan girls who were enticed to come to Los Angeles with the promise of good jobs, but were instead sold into prostitution.

But as higher-ups in ICE’s L.A. office exited their posts, the relationship diminished. MART continues to collaborate at times with ICE’s investigative branch, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), on cases involving child pornography, narcotics and gangs. However, MART has no involvement with ICE’s best-known work – immigration actions that result in the detentions of unauthorized immigrants.

Mendoza said his desire to work with ICE on immigration matters predates the Trump administration by several years. Still, his hope of working closely with ICE in the Trump era makes MART something of an outlier among local agencies.

Trump Expands Deportation Priorities

When Trump was elected in November after promising to boost deportations, city and county leaders reacted swiftly to defend the L.A. area’s estimated 1 million undocumented residents. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, for example, voted in January to create an office to help undocumented immigrants find legal representation and other services.

LAPD, meanwhile, reaffirmed its decades-old policy that officers will not approach suspects solely to ask about their immigration status. The Sheriff’s Department has a similar policy. The department does, however, allow ICE to interview inmates at county jails who have been convicted of violent or serious crimes.

Since Trump’s inauguration, at least one large-scale ICE operation led to the arrest of 161 people in the L.A. area, while many smaller operations have also been carried out by immigration officers.

Similar enforcement actions took place for many years before Trump came into office, but there is little doubt Trump’s January executive order expanding the number of immigrants prioritized for deportation is having far-reaching consequences. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said last month that an atmosphere of fear within Latino communities has had a chilling effect on the reporting of certain crimes, including sexual assault.

It remains unclear how many people, and how many parents, have been deported from the L.A. area since the Trump administration took over in January. ICE officials said that the agency does not regularly keep track of either number. Media reports suggest several children have been separated from at least one parent due to recent immigration arrests.

Activists have been particularly upset by the detention of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, a 48-year-old native of Mexico and father of four U.S. citizens who was pulled over and detained by ICE officers in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles last month, minutes after dropping one of his daughters off at school. Video of that arrest went viral after it was obtained by news organizations from Avelica-Gonzalez’s 13-year-old daughter, who witnessed the arrest alongside her mother.

Avelica-Gonzalez has been held for the past month at the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County. ICE told media outlets at the time of his arrest that Avelica-Gonzalez was targeted due to prior convictions for misdemeanor crimes including driving under the influence, as well as an outstanding order of removal from 2014.

L.A. Child Welfare Awaits County’s Approval

Cecilia Saco, a supervising children’s social worker who oversees DCFS’ special immigration status unit, said the deportation of a parent of U.S. citizens will often separate a parent and children, since newly deported parents are generally unsure of being able to provide financially for children in a new country.

“We expect that many of the kids left behind are going to be U.S. citizens, not undocumented,” Saco said. “Many U.S. citizen children remain behind because the parents do not want the children to go back.”

Even so, an ICE spokesperson said officers rarely target the primary caregiver of a child and that the agency “may consider whether the individual is a parent or legal guardian of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or the primary care taker of any minor,” before taking a suspect into custody.

In the event a primary caregiver is detained, ICE says an agency employee waits at the location until a child’s relative arrives to assume responsibility. If no relatives are available, ICE says it gets in touch with the appropriate social services agency for assistance.

“ICE is committed to ensuring that the agency’s immigration enforcement activities, including detention and removal, do not unnecessarily disrupt the parental rights of alien parents and legal guardians of minor children,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in an email.

Still, Mendoza thinks MART could better ensure children are quickly put into the proper care and provided DCFS services including legal help and academic counseling.

He says he will wait for direction from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors before taking any action to establish closer coordination with ICE, so as not to run afoul of county policy.

“We cannot ignore the political climate around this issue,” he said.


Jonathan Polakoff is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Easy Reader, Argonaut and other publications. 

Daniel Heimpel contributed to this story.

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