In the midst of negotiations aimed at clarifying when police can turn illegal immigrants over to federal authorities, Los Angeles police officers Thursday called in the Immigration and Naturalization Service after rescuing 20 aliens from smugglers who were holding them hostage.
Police were alerted to the situation by a frantic call from a man in Reno who reported that his wife and children were being held by alien smugglers in Los Angeles.
Officers found the woman, her 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, along with 17 other suspected illegal Mexican immigrants, inside a "locked and barred, run-down sweatbox of a house" in the 4800 block of South McKinley Avenue. The smugglers were apparently holding the aliens for ransom, according to Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
After police apprehended the suspected smugglers and rescued their hostages, they turned the entire group over to the INS, which began deportation proceedings against the hostages.
City Councilman Michael Woo said Thursday that the Police Department "has gone too far in trying to enforce the job of the INS."
Woo has led an effort in recent months to strengthen a longstanding LAPD policy that already bans police from turning aliens over to immigration authorities without cause.
"It seems that Chief Gates is not distinguishing between criminals, victims and witnesses," he added.
Woo predicted that Thursday's police action--similar to one that occurred last month when 27 aliens were turned over to the INS--would send "shock waves out to immigrants that they should be afraid of contacting police even if they are merely victims or witnesses to crime."
Gates defended his officers' action in a press release, saying that the LAPD "makes absolutely no effort to seek out undocumented (aliens). . . . Of our own accord, we do not initiate action against anyone merely because of their immigration status."
He added, however, that "when we are confronted by serious criminal actions . . . we cannot look the other way."
Gates said that the handling of the hostage case is in keeping with the department's 1979 policy to not go after immigrants merely because of their illegal status.
How well the department is adhering to this policy, however, has been the focus of a growing controversy.
Earlier this week, immigrant advocates testified at a City Council committee hearing that police increasingly have turned over to the INS victims and witnesses of crimes, who then are almost certain to be deported. And, they testified, this policy is stirring a growing mistrust of police on the part of immigrant communities.
"We definitely do not want to interfere with the ability of the police to do their job," said City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who chaired the hearing held earlier this week before the city's Public Safety Committee. "However, it is cases like this that point to the need to clarify just what the policy is."
INS officials, meanwhile, maintained police "did the right thing."
"We encourage cooperation between the INS and local law enforcement agencies," said INS District Director Robert Moschorak.
Later in the day, INS agents apprehended an additional 36 suspected illegal aliens and two smugglers at the same Los Angeles address as the smugglers pulled up to the house with another van filled with people. These suspects were immediately taken into INS custody.
Moschorak said his office had begun the process of filing criminal charges against five suspected smugglers and deportation proceedings against the 20 aliens who were held hostage--including the woman and her two children who sparked the investigation--as well as the 36 apprehended later.
Some may voluntarily leave the country. A few will be asked to temporarily remain in the country as material witnesses against the smugglers, Moschorak said.
ALIENS handed over: L.A. police recued a group of illegal alien hostages, then handed them to the INS.B8