FBI Pressed Detained Anti-ICE Activist for Information on Protests, Offering Immigration Help

ICE has been criticized for detaining and deporting other activists, but this case also indicates an FBI interest in anti-ICE protests.

On Friday, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested a longtime U.S. resident protesting against ICE in San Antonio, Texas, the FBI stepped in for an interrogation, telling the resident, 18-year-old Sergio Salazar, that his immigration status had been revoked because he was a “bad person.” The FBI agents asked him to inform on fellow protesters and said if he did so it could help his immigration case.

“It seems evident that he was targeted here because of his involvement in the anti-ICE protests,” said Jonathan Ryan, Salazar’s lawyer from RAICES Texas, an immigrant advocacy group. “We’re very concerned about how directed and targeted and aggressive and quick this was.” ICE has been criticized for recent detentions and deportations of other activists, but little else has emerged that indicates an FBI interest in anti-ICE protests.


Sergio Salazar, also known as Mapache.

Photo: Courtesy of RAICES

Salazar, an aspiring filmmaker who came to the U.S. when he was two, was quoted extensively in the San Antonio Express-News in late July under his nickname “Mapache,” saying that his group planned to remain in its encampment in front of an ICE processing facility until “ICE no longer operates in San Antonio.” He was arrested as he stepped away from the encampment a few days later.

“An ICE agent pulled up in a truck behind me, called me over,” Salazar said in a recorded call from the detention center where he is being held. “He yelled that I was under arrest…I saw another truck come up behind me and they pushed me into a van and took me away.”

“I was taken aside to a little room by the FBI. They wanted to ask me about my friends.”

The agents took him behind an abandoned Walmart, Salazar said, where they shackled him and emptied his pockets before carting him off to the South Texas Detention Complex, in Pearsall, southwest of San Antonio. Salazar is originally from Mexico, and for several years he has had legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Obama-administration initiative that protects some immigrant youth from deportation and which the Trump administration has tried to terminate. Salazar had applied for a renewal of his status about a month earlier, but it wasn’t until he was in detention that ICE agents told him that his application had been denied. What’s more, at Pearsall, he was interviewed by FBI agents, who said his DACA hadn’t been renewed because he was a “bad person.”

“I was taken aside to a little room by the FBI,” Salazar said in the recording, which was provided to The Intercept by RAICES. “They wanted to ask me about my friends. Their words were that I am someone who has a lot to say, and they’d like to hear it. But they also were implying that if I got them useful information, about something I’m about to be a part of, that, the fact that it was useful would get to an immigration judge.”

Salazar refused to speak with them, and was then transferred to another facility, the Webb County Detention Center, on the border in Laredo, Texas. There, FBI agents questioned him again, but this time they said they had a warrant to search his cellphone, related to “impeding a federal officer,” and something to do with threats of bomb making, Salazar said.

Salazar hazarded a guess that maybe “some of my friends and I were singing protest songs and one of the words is ‘Molotov,’ so now on that basis they want to search for incendiary stuff.” But the FBI didn’t mention anything specific, and his lawyer hasn’t seen the warrant. Local law enforcement told the San Antonio Express-News that he was being looked at because of his or his group’s online postings.

Ryan said that Salazar’s work permit under DACA had expired on August 2. His letter of denial, which makes no mention of any specific reason, was dated August 3, the day of his arrest: “It’s a one-liner, saying you don’t merit prosecutorial discretion.” Up to that point, they had assumed the process for renewal was moving along; indeed, Salazar had an appointment to give fingerprints for his new work permit this week.

Salazar had joined the Occupy ICE encampment that sprang up in San Antonio in mid-July. A Facebook page called “Free Mapache,” linked by the “Occupy ICE SATX” group describes him as “a dedicated, long-time community activist who has committed himself to fighting deportations, police violence, and corporate exploitation. He is overflowing with generosity and is always willing to put himself on the line for others.” On the call with RAICES, Salazar said he spent his time at the camp distributing food and toys to children who were visiting family at the ICE facility.

On July 28, members of the fascist white supremacist group Patriot Front had descended on the camp, scattering tents, signs and coolers, and chanting, “Strong borders! Strong nations!,” a scene captured in a video posted by the Occupy group. Mapache gave his quotes to the Express-News that day, telling the newspaper that he was a self-identified anarchist. “They outnumbered us five-to-one, so we pretty much stood back and allowed them to take their videos and to attempt to tear apart the camp,” he said. He spoke out about Occupy ICE SATX’s goals, saying that ICE “is doing what (Patriot Front) wants.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Salazar’s father said that he had just graduated from high school and hoped to study filmmaking in Austin. He idolized Mexican-American filmmaker Roberto Rodriguez and the Mexican directors Alejandro Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro.

“He is not a violent person, in fact he’s a pacifist,” said the father, who declined to use his name out of concern for the family’s privacy and safety. “He’s not a criminal and he should not be in jail.”

But about three weeks before Salazar’s arrest, a neighbor told the family she’d noticed a strange car idling in front of their house.

“She went up to them to ask what they were doing. And they lowered the glass and she saw that they had the initials FBI on their shirts,” Salazar’s father said. The neighbor said the FBI asked her about who lived in Sergio’s house, and she told them it was a couple and their two sons. She came soon after to tell Sergio’s father about the incident.

“It was really strange, we’ve never had problems with the law, we don’t get involved in anything,” he said.

“The government can’t retaliate against someone for criticizing the government, and that includes immigration officials.”

As ICE cracks down on undocumented immigrants across the country, detaining people who previously would not have been priorities for deportation, many advocacy groups are expressing concern that the agency is singling out activists. In February, The Intercept reported on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of groups after two high-profile New York-based immigrant leaders were detained and one of them deported.

William Perdue, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter who is working on the case, said he had tallied at least a dozen instances of activists who’d faced immigration enforcement actions.

It’s really very simple,” said Perdue. “The government can’t retaliate against someone for criticizing the government, and that includes immigration officials. They’re not allowed to take enforcement action against activists because of their activism.”

Jacob Hutt, a fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, added that the ramifications extended beyond an individual’s First Amendment rights: “It tells everyone else in your community what they can expect to happen to them if they speak out on an issue, and that’s especially chilling when people are already fearful because of their immigration status.”

A spokesperson for ICE said that Salazar was arrested “for being in violation of federal immigration law.” The statement said that ICE “does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” but added that “target information is based on intelligence-driven leads – this may include open source information.” United States Citizenship and Immigration Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Salazar’s DACA denial.

The FBI has leveraged immigration charges to gain information in the past. For years, Muslim immigrants in particular have complained that the FBI leaned on them for information about terror investigations. The Intercept has published FBI documents showing that the bureau works with Customs and Border Protection to identify potential sources, offering them an “immigration relief dangle” in exchange for cooperation. Internal FBI policy documents also confirm that the FBI coordinates with immigration authorities to locate and deport informants who are no longer useful to the bureau.

Asked about this specific case, San Antonio FBI spokesperson Michelle Lee said our policy is to neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.” She added that “we’re not aware of any criminal charges against Mr. Salazar at this time.”

FBI involvement has not surfaced in recent stories of deported immigration activists, but over the past several years documents have shown FBI and Department of Homeland Security surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists. The surveillance in those cases was often triggered by social media posts that law enforcement identified as signaling a potential threat, as may have happened in Salazar’s case.

Ryan said that Salazar was likely to have an immigration hearing scheduled in the next few months, and that RAICES is demanding his immediate release in the interim.

In a call with reporters over the weekend from Laredo, Salazar said that he had never previously felt persecuted, and that the ICE arrest came out of nowhere.

His father last spoke with him on Sunday. “He’s doing a little better, but he’s still sad, still desperate,” he told The Intercept. “I feel really angry, really sad, really frustrated and the only thing I want is for him to come back home.”

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