In the darkness of the early hours Monday, about a dozen immigration agents gathered outside a Starbucks in Bell Gardens.
For the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who make daily arrests, it was supposed to be business as usual.
But that morning, they greeted one another with elbows instead of handshakes; the Starbucks where they rendezvoused was only grab and go; and they passed freeway signs that read: “Wash your hands stay healthy avoid COVID-19.”
The ICE agents were about to spend the day trying to arrest targets on a most unusual of days: the day after the California governor and L.A. mayor ordered people to ramp up their efforts of social distancing over the coronavirus. The agents had N95 respirator masks in their vehicles, just in case.
With safety measures taken across the state, immigrant advocates have criticized ICE for its continued enforcement operations. More than 45 organizations signed a letter this week calling on the Department of Homeland Security to suspend such actions.
ICE said it would take precautions, given the new reality. But the arrests would go on.
“We’re out here trying to protect the public by getting these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities,” said David Marin, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in L.A. “Asking us to stop doing that basically gives those criminals another opportunity to maybe commit more crimes, to create more victims.”
In the parking lot, the group of agents stood in a loose circle — not quite six feet apart — as they reviewed the target list. That morning, they were searching for four people, including two registered sex offenders.
Among the gathered officers were two U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers — identifiable only by a patch on their vest with their agency’s name. They were among nine total CBP agents and officers deployed to the L.A. area in the last few weeks to assist ICE in making arrests.