He wasn’t afraid until the officer gripped the gun-packed holster and eyed him closely, clutching the neck of a bulletproof vest that stretched “POLICE” in thick, white letters across his chest.
A nondescript golden-plated badge dangled beside it, latched onto a utility belt that wrapped the officer’s thick blue jeans and button-down beige long sleeve.
That’s when Josh Ayala knew: The masked men weren’t local police.
“It’s them,” mouthed his boyfriend, Luis Valladares-Cruz.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE.
Moments before, blue lights from three unmarked Fords beamed in the rear view, forcing them to pull over on the dirt-lined side of Occoquan Road in Woodbridge. Ayala thought it was for the vehicle’s expired tags.
Officers said a local crime investigation was underway.
Then they pulled Valladares-Cruz from the driver’s seat, handcuffed him against the trunk and cited an arrest warrant Ayala said they didn’t provide when he asked.
The promise of 6:30 a.m. breakfast sandwiches and Starbucks coffee vanished, and along with it, Valladares-Cruz.
He would face deportation, nearly two decades after arriving from Honduras at age 7.
Hours later, on Aug. 13, Valladares-Cruz became one of 520 intakes at Caroline County’s immigrant detention center — located an hour north of Richmond — since March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
The method ICE used to arrest him — blue lights to initiate what at first seems like a routine traffic stop and uniforms that don’t clearly identify them — is allowed by law, but increasingly under scrutiny by critics who say the practice fractures relationships between local police and immigrant communities.
Allegations of U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement agents posing as local law enforcement continue to be reported across the country.
An ICE spokesperson said the agents didn’t claim to be with another law enforcement agency and that they’re easily identified by agency-branded badges and protective gear.
Lawsuits, including one the ACLU of Southern California filed in April, say otherwise, citing that the routine impersonation of local police in unmarked cars is a “ruse” some immigrant communities are reportedly seeing more often, creating panic and potentially limiting the ability for local law enforcement to do their jobs.
And sometimes, “ICE” isn’t visible on agent uniforms. In Ayala’s 30-second video, it wasn’t, furthering the ambiguity that could mislead people to mistake federal agents with another law enforcement agency.
“They’re essentially deceiving people. [Undocumented immigrants are] stopping thinking that they’re local police officers,” said Gabriela León-Pérez, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor of immigration policy. “They might not reveal they’re ICE until after the arrest.”
In the past few weeks, longtime immigration attorney Lisa Shea has heard of two cases where agents did not identify themselves, arrested undocumented immigrants and put them into unmarked vehicles after pulling them over in Prince William County — which has more than 100,000 foreign-born residents according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Shea said that if it becomes known that ICE is conducting traffic stops, the doubt among communities could result in people dangerously dodging arrests.
An ICE spokesperson said vehicle stops are among the many situations ICE officers “may encounter as part of their lawful duties,” which can include targeted enforcement activities.
León-Pérez added that legal procedure requires agents to present a judge-signed warrant, but sometimes, agents won’t and instead make people feel they can’t assert their rights.
“At the end of the day, if an ICE agent wants to arrest them, they will,” she said.
Richmond-based immigration attorney Jessica Wright said that while she hasn’t heard of ICE posing as local officers, she’s not surprised — especially with localities sometimes working with federal immigration officials.
The relationship between local police and ICE has resulted in heightened mistrust and fears of deportation among immigrants, exacerbated by immigration authorities pushing forth programs, such as 287(g) — referring to a section of a 1996 federal immigration law — that allows sheriffs and police departments to make immigration arrests and turn people over to ICE.
As of August 2020, at least 76 law enforcement agencies in 21 states had official ICE agreements.
Prince William County, where Valladares-Cruz was detained, was one of them until July 1, when the contract expired. Under the county’s agreement, ICE deported almost 600 local residents since 2018.
The only Virginia locality with an official ICE agreement is the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office, according to the ICE website. Advocates say unofficial ones continue to exist across the state, citing the town of Farmville.
In a statement, the Prince William Police Department said it was not involved in the arrest and “at no time did our agency solicit the assistance of ICE or seek to arrest this individual.”
Ayala also said the agent told him his 2015 Ford Fusion was involved in the local crime they were investigating. The police department said it was unable to locate that vehicle model in a crime report in 2020, but can’t speak for other local, state or federal agencies.
ICE spokeswoman Kaitlyn Pote said Valladares-Cruz was a target based on an active arrest warrant in Georgia for failing to appear for a court date in April 2016 for marijuana possession.
Ayala said that’s not the story they were originally told when pulled over.
In an interview Friday, Ayala said Valladares-Cruz wasn’t charged or presented with a court date — he was in Virginia by then — because it wasn’t him who was arrested. He was in the passenger seat while police stopped the driver who fled to avoid apprehension, Ayala said.
León-Pérez said past instances in which ICE agents wait outside courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants have debilitated trust with government, prompting immigrants not to appear in court out of deportation fears.
In previous news releases, ICE has stated it relies on the cooperation of local officials to “expeditiously remove dangerous criminals from our communities” and that there’s an increase in risk to agents and bystanders when ICE officers have to “proactively locate these previously detained criminal aliens.”
In 2019, the Marshall Project — a nonprofit news outlet focused on criminal justice — found no evidence to support a connection between undocumented immigrants and crime.
This workaround to sanctuary policies, a loose term for localities that choose to limit cooperation with ICE, has prompted Congress to take action in past years.
In 2019, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to block ICE agents from identifying as local law enforcement, saying that wearing clothing that displays the word “police” can cause confusion between federal and local agencies. It didn’t pass.
The actions of ICE agents in Virginia are compounded with conditions inside immigrant detention centers that advocates call “inhumane,” especially in a pandemic with a virus that circulates in cramped quarters.
While a judge has temporarily barred ICA-Farmville, a Virginia immigrant detention center an hour west of Richmond, from transferring in detainees, Caroline County is still able to do so at the request of ICE after a 14-day isolation period and if the detainee doesn’t have a fever, aggravating a push from health and elected officials to halt intakes.
Ayala said Valladares-Cruz reported in a call that despite being in isolation, he shares the same bathrooms, phones and showers with those who aren’t.
As of Aug. 28, 176 people were detained at the Caroline Detention Facility. All are facing deportation.
The Caroline Detention Facility currently reports no active coronavirus cases and five since the pandemic began. On average, it has admitted 104 individuals each month since March 11.
An hour away sits ICA-Farmville, a facility that had one COVID-19-related death and where almost every person detained tested positive for the virus, marking the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak in an immigrant detention center.
By the time of publication, ICE did not have the number of how many undocumented immigrants have been detained in Virginia since March or whether any were transferred out of state or deported.
But the federal agency continues to enforce removal for those in violation of immigration law — especially if found removable by final order. ICE said Valladares-Cruz was.
Ayala said Friday that courts ordered the deportation when Valladares-Cruz was 7 years old — nearly two decades ago — and a recent arrival from Honduras. They were told it was dropped, Ayala said.
But if the removal goes through this time, Ayala fears his boyfriend will become a target in the Central American country, which is plagued by violence against LGBTQ people.
His court date hasn’t been set, Ayala said.
The average length of stay since the start of the pandemic has been slightly over two months at the Caroline Detention Facility, according to an ICE spokesperson.
As of Monday, Valladares-Cruz will be on Day 18.