Reynold Garcia was attending church services in suburban Illinois last month when agents with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement tricked him into exiting the building so that they could arrest and deport him.
The agents reportedly pretended to be Garcia's cousin, sending text messages from her cellphone indicating that she had been in a car accident. Then an agent pretending to be a police officer called Garcia to ask that he come help file an incident report, so he stepped outside.
When Garcia went outside, the agents — attired in vests that read "POLICE" — led him to an unmarked vehicle and then revealed that they were with ICE.
"The very last moment, you know, is when we realized what was happening," Garcia's best friend Haggar Gutierrez told the Chicago radio station WBEZ. "I go, 'No, no, no… this is not police, this is ICE.' But it was too late, because he was already in the car."
Garcia had already been deported once before. He was swiftly taken to a detention center in Texas, where he found his wife and children, who had been taken into custody hours earlier, and the family was then deported to Mexico. The episode left members of his Christian Pentecostal Church community in the town of Schaumburg terrified of enforcement actions to follow.
"There's people who are going out less," said Gerson Moreno, the church's pastor. "They're avoiding certain areas. If they have to go to work, they're taking different routes to go back home."
But ICE's deceptive raid on Garcia's congregation might have violated the US Constitution, immigration experts told VICE News, and appeared to contradict government policy.
Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, said that the action was likely unlawful, noting that it seemed to violate the Fourth Amendment ensuring reasonable search and seizure as well as the Fifth Amendment, which protects due process for individuals.
"There's a real possibility that it wasn't lawful. ICE has to have a warrant or consent to enter private spaces and to engage in certain types of questioning, and it seems they intended to arrest him but they did not have a warrant that would allow them to enter the church and did not have a permit," Gilman said. "So they engaged in deceptive practices so he could be in a public space when they arrested him."
Meanwhile, the action was an obvious infringement of ICE's enforcement policy, Gilman said. According to ICE's "sensitive locations" memo, written in 2011, agents are not to conduct raids at or near a church, school, or hospital.
"Supervisors should take extra care when assessing whether a planned enforcement action could reasonably be viewed as causing significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location," the memo states. Undocumented immigrants have recently taken sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation.
"The policy is intended to create a bit of a safe area around churches for the benefit of the government's relationship with the community," Gilman explained. When individuals do not trust law enforcement, they are less likely to step forward to report crimes.
ICE's arrest of Garcia on January 3 occurred on the same weekend that agents rounded up 121 Central American women and children in a string of deportation raids, which often involved lying to the families to gain entrance into their homes. Eunice Cho, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the Illinois church sting spoke to a larger pattern of ICE's recent enforcement approach.
"This points to a disturbing trend in which ICE agents have explicitly used deceptive tactics in enforcement," said Cho, who authored a critical report on the raids. "Our report indicated ICE was using these deceptive tactics to gain entry into women's homes by saying they were police officers."
The raids incited fear throughout immigrant communities across the nation. To assuage their anxieties, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson made a point of emphasizing in response that sensitive locations would not be targeted.
"When enforcing immigration laws, our personnel will not, except in emergency circumstances, apprehend an individual at a place of worship, a school, a hospital or doctor's office or other sensitive location," Johnson said in a February 2 memo.
Royce Murray, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said that she and other advocates had asked Johnson to emphasize that the sensitive locations policy remained in place.
"We were hearing desks were empty at school and people weren't showing up at doctor appointments, so we asked him to assure that sensitive locations memo still applies," Murray recalled. "And we were grateful he did reiterate it in the memo. But then you hear about situations like this, accounts of people getting lured out of churches. This isn't going to make people feel any safer."
ICE spokesperson Gail Montenegro would not respond to repeated requests for comment on ICE's apparent violation of the sensitive locations policy, but she said that Garcia was an enforcement priority because he had entered the US undocumented once before.
"Reynold Garcia-Chavez, a 31-year-old illegal alien from Mexico, was arrested by ICE Jan. 3, 2016 in Schaumburg, Illinois," Montenegro said in an email. "Garcia-Chavez was previously removed to Mexico Dec. 9, 2014 and illegally re-entered the United States, making him a Priority 2 ICE enforcement priority according to the Nov. 20, 2014 Department of Homeland Security memo."
"ICE remains focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes threats to national security, public safety, and border security," she added. "As a matter of ICE policy, in order to preserve officer safety, we cannot discuss details of law enforcement actions, including the tactics our officers employ."
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