The prospect of hardline immigration enforcement by the incoming Donald Trump administration is growing with each passing day. As The Intercept has reported, the formal transition team for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is full of lobbyists for blue chip surveillance contractors and architects of intrusive DHS programs that racially profile people of color.
Trump’s plans for an immigration enforcement surge have been met with resistance from the California state legislature, as well as the mayors of so-called sanctuary cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and elsewhere. On the campaign trail, Trump threatened to cut off federal funding for sanctuary cities that defied federal immigration enforcement efforts. There are over three hundred such cities around the country.
Despite incoming California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s challenge to Trump’s team to “come at us” over immigration enforcement, and the state legislature’s ongoing efforts to bolster legal representation for people in deportation proceedings and restrict law enforcement cooperation with ICE, local law enforcement in California is decidedly apprehensive about confronting the feds.
One of the programs local police fear will suffer from any cutoff of federal funding or cooperation is the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Taskforce, a hallmark of American law enforcement’s efforts to fight drug trafficking and transnational crime. Established in 1982, currently more than half a billion dollars in OCDETF funding is disbursed to nine regions throughout the country to cover the costs of joint federal-local investigations and prosecutions of entities such as Mexican drug cartels, street gangs, the Italian Camorra, and the Russian mob. It is the centerpiece of the federal war on drugs.
One veteran California police officer from a sanctuary city who has worked on dozens of joint-federal task forces over the years said he feared the consequences of losing OCDETF funding and manpower. “I don’t think people understand what it would mean to cut off federal assistance,” the officer said. “I’d lose all my OCDETF funding, my investigative assistance, all the resources we use to go after seriously bad dudes.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at the University of California-Irvine and an expert in both constitutional law and federal practice, told The Intercept in an email that cutting recalcitrant cities off from federal assistance would be a difficult, but feasible prospect.
“The question is whether the Trump administration and Congress are going to condition federal funds on cities cooperating with federal immigration authorities. If so, this will be challenged in the courts,” Chemerinsky wrote. “But there is no doubt that such heavy-handed tactics would seriously hinder cooperation between federal and state law enforcement authorities.”
OCDETF task forces are at the forefront of the government’s fight against the distribution networks of drug cartels throughout the country. A 21-month investigation across California, Maryland, and Minnesota in 2009 resulted in the arrest of more than seven hundred alleged associates of the Sinaloa cartel, the seizure of almost $60 million in cash, and massive amounts of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and ecstasy.
Another high profile case to come out of OCDETF collaboration is a series of eight indictments in Chicago that led to the convictions of Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers who controlled the Sinaloa Cartel’s operation in that city and eventually flipped on their superiors, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The United States Attorney in Chicago is one of several federal prosecutors competing for the right to try El Chapo when he is extradited to the United States.
In Northern California, an OCDETF task force built off investigative work by local Bay Area law enforcement to arrest and charge several Norteño gang members who ran a drug trafficking network that distributed methamphetamine, prescription drugs, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana from the Bay down to the Central Valley. The network, headed by Oscar Vladimir “Cuddy” Escalante, trafficked large amounts of narcotics as far away as Arkansas and Mississippi. Court documents show the investigation to be a classic federal-local task force case, where the street-level informants and manpower of local police was complimented by the wiretapping expertise and interstate jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law and a former OCDETF prosecutor in South Carolina, said the joint federal-local task forces are essential to public safety.
“This notion that the federal government or the states can just go it alone when it comes to big organized crime is hogwash,” Shealy said. “The feds are an extremely thin blue line. The state has the boots on the ground, the intelligence resources and contacts that the federal agencies need. What the feds bring is training, leadership, technology and the ability to act across state lines.”
However, Shealy doubted whether Trump’s choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, would handicap a central component of the war on drugs. “With an incoming administration that at least has a tough pro-law enforcement line so far, leaving innocent people unshielded against these people and these activities would be counterproductive in all sorts of ways,” Shealy said. “I would be shocked if it came to that.”
In sanctuary cities, there are already signs of division between elected officials and immigrant advocates. In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee is now opposing a $5 million request by Public Defender Jeff Adachi to fund legal representation for immigrants in removal proceedings. Sources in the immigrant advocacy community who have attended confidential meetings with members of the Los Angeles Police Department and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s staff told The Intercept that city officials walked out of a recent meeting with immigrant advocates when pressured about the possibility of cutting off or restricting LAPD’s cooperation with ICE.
Los Angeles’ stance on immigration and cooperation with ICE stands in sharp contrast to the Orange County City of Santa Ana, where the city council approved a sanctuary policy this week and is considering cutting off ICE’s access to the local jail and its databases.