The Detroit office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is under fire for what critics are calling aggressive and overzealous tactics.
ICE officials say they are concerned enough that they're reviewing a recent incident involving immigration agents.
But the union that represents agents is complaining that ICE isn't standing behind its officers.
A Ghost Town
The principal of Hope of Detroit Academy, Ali Abdel, says he was helping out with morning safety patrol on March 31, just like he does most mornings.
"We had a parent come up to me and say somebody was in an unmarked vehicle with binoculars," he says.
Abdel says there were three SUVs with tinted windows parked near the school. Some parents — who may have been undocumented immigrants — started to panic and sought refuge in the school. Abdel says the building was like a ghost town that afternoon, and things didn't settle down for at least a week.
"Kids weren't focused on their work, parents were not bringing their kids to school out of fear," says Abdel. "And this is no place where children feel like that. They should feel like they're safe, and parents should feel that their kids are safe here at school."
Critics say the agents who carried out the operation ignored their agency's own guidelines prohibiting enforcement near schools and churches. ICE is concerned enough that its director, John Morton, flew to Detroit last month to meet with community leaders.
ICE said in a statement that elements of the operation appeared to be inconsistent with its policies. The comment didn't sit well with Chris Crain, who heads the National ICE Council, the union that represents immigration agents.
"The agency made a statement before they even asked one single officer about anything that took place that day," he says.
Crain also says agents kept their distance from the school, and never even got out of their vehicles. He accuses critics of fear-mongering, saying, "it's the statements of some of these political leaders that are really creating the fear in the communities, the fear across the nation now that ICE agents are these terrible people doing terrible things to immigrants, when that's just not the case."
That view of ICE was on display at a recent community meeting in Detroit. Hundreds of people packed a union hall to hear stories of people who say they've been the targets of wrongdoing by ICE.
Ruben Torres says agents in unmarked vehicles pulled him over as he was driving home from work recently. Agents questioned him about his citizenship for more than an hour, he says, even after he provided them with his driver's license, registration and other documents. Torres is a third-generation U.S. citizen.
"What more do I need to have," he asks. "Do I have to carry a passport to live in the United States now?"
University of Detroit-Mercy law professor David Koelsch says agents had every right to pull Torres over and ask him about his immigration status.
"But once this gentleman provided some proof, some evidence that he is a U.S. citizen, the inquiry should have stopped there," he says.
Koelsch describes himself as "moderate to conservative" on immigration policy, and he says immigration laws should be enforced. But ICE agents get it wrong when they use their authority as a blunt instrument, he says.
"If they go in there with a heavy-handed approach, then their sources of information dry up," Koelsch says. "That's not good law enforcement."
Whether agents broke regulations or just came close to it, Koelsch says the perception could be more important than the reality. But he also says that people who are openly flouting U.S. immigration laws have to understand ICE's job is to enforce those laws. Copyright 2011 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.