DUI criminal defense attorneys have for months tried to warn people about the locations of drunk driving checkpoints / dui roadblocks in San Diego County including Escondido.
Now federal agents and Escondido law enforcement have full-time placement of three Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at police headquarters an important crime-fighting tool.
Escondido’s San Diego county DUI checkpoints apparently are a guise for intimidating the undocumented, who are barred from getting a driver’s license in California.
Illegal immigrants seek to live peacefully, find employment and eventually gain permanent residency in the United States.
The Escondido controversy reflects some of the thorniest issues in the national debate about immigration reform. Certain organizations push for tougher measures against illegal immigrants, while others want Congress to grant them a path to citizenship. In various speeches and its immigration lawsuit against Arizona, the Obama administration has aimed for a balancing act — upholding laws against the undocumented while trying to be humane and to not antagonize key nations such as Mexico.
Escondido attracted national attention in 2006 with its failed attempt to punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants. The city has a policy against giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants or leaving immigration matters to federal authorities alone.
The street demonstrations that greeted the rental ordinance are back, this time near the police sobriety checkpoints. On Oct. 23, for example, about 30 people gathered a few blocks ahead of one checkpoint to warn motorists, who detoured onto alternate streets or parked their vehicles to wait out the screening.
Maher condemned such protests as irresponsible. He said they undermine his department’s moderate and pragmatic campaign to keep the city safe.
“There are folks in this community that feel that if we know someone is in the country illegally, just in the country illegally, we should take action,” said Maher, who rose through the Escondido police ranks over three decades. “That certainly would make law enforcement in this community more difficult, if our illegal immigrant community felt that every time they called the police department … we would simply turn them over to the Border Patrol.”
At nearly every turn, from community forums to private meetings with the Mexican consul in San Diego, Maher stresses that Escondido isn’t interested in the immigration status of lawful residents.
“There are known criminals who would be allowed to stay in most communities. (They) will not be able to stay in Escondido,” he said. “And if they do choose to come back to the country, they won’t choose to come back to Escondido.”
Skeptics point out that immigrants with orders to leave the country aren’t necessarily criminals.
“The chief of the Escondido police likes to paint a picture like these deportation orders are a warrant, and they’re not,” said Bill Flores, a former assistant sheriff for San Diego County who is active with the Latino-rights organization El Grupo. “Most local law-enforcement agencies don’t do that because they don’t want to be viewed as immigration officers alienating the Latino community.”
Civil-liberties activists said the collaboration between Escondido and ICE has no written standards, raising the potential for racial profiling and other abuses.
“Any officer with a bone to pick can slip someone’s name in the ICE officers’ mailbox for scrutiny,” said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego.
Escondido police and ICE officials stress that they don’t go after illegal immigrants unless they have a criminal record or previous deportation order. Verification is difficult because the agencies said they don’t keep applicable records.
For several years, a federal immigration officer has worked out of the Escondido Police Department on an anti-gang task force.
In May, two more ICE officers were assigned to the department for a pilot program dubbed “Operation Joint Effort.” The initiative is tailored to a recent federal push to remove illegal immigrants who pose a danger to public safety or national security and those who re-enter the U.S. after being deported, said Robin Baker, director of the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations office in San Diego.
One hallmark of his agency’s national campaign is Secure Communities, a system for screening suspects against Homeland Security immigration records as they’re booked into local jails, including those in San Diego County.
ICE has gone a step further in Escondido. Its officers respond almost as soon as the city’s officers spot an illegal immigrant they suspect was already convicted or deported.
“It institutionalizes cooperation between locals and federal agents where they’re located together and they’re able to build rapport,” said Jessica Vaughan with the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocate for greater immigration enforcement and controls.
Operation Joint Effort has led to 176 arrests since May. Most of the detainees had criminal records, including illegal immigrants with prior convictions for auto theft, weapons violations and child-sex crimes. Thirty-three of those arrested didn’t have criminal histories but had been ordered out of the country by an immigration judge.
Mexico’s top diplomat for the San Diego region went to Escondido this month to find out more about police checkpoints and the partnership with ICE. Consul Remedios Gómez Arnau also spoke to Mexican nationals in the area about their basic rights.
“They feel very anxious knowing about these checkpoints and that it is hurting people from the Latino community,” she said.
At 19 state-funded checkpoints in Escondido in fiscal year 2010, there were 474 citations against unlicensed drivers and 41 arrests for driving under the influence. Unlicensed drivers can have their vehicles impounded for up to 30 days, and fines and fees can be as much as $1,300.
“I want the Police Department to be able to serve and protect everyone in our community no matter what their status,” said Carmen Miranda, a City Council candidate who has helped mobilize protesters at the checkpoints. She has videotaped police officers at close range as they issue citations and make arrests.
“As long as people don’t get into any criminal activity and they’re just working, their immigration status should not be an issue,” Miranda said.
Among California cities its size, Escondido has the second-worst record for traffic accidents resulting in death or injuries in which alcohol was involved. The Office of Transportation Safety funds most of Escondido’s checkpoints and treats driver’s license checks as an integral part of San Diego county DUI enforcement.