Questions Remain Over Reported Morgantown ICE Operations

Aug 23, 2019

Last week, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency conducted operations in the Morgantown area -- and possibly elsewhere in the state. 

As of now, the details of those operations remain mostly unknown. 

During this week’s regular Morgantown City Council meeting, Police Chief Ed Preston briefly outlined how his department was alerted ICE operations were about to take place. 

“They gave us notification to local law enforcement as a courtesy only -- not just to us, but to West Virginia University, the sheriff's office and the surrounding areas as well as the Emergency Management Office,” Preston said.

Although city and county law enforcement agencies were notified ahead of the operations, Preston said those agencies did not assist in the operations. 

“No personnel from the police department or from any municipal or county law enforcement agency participated in any of their operations as far as I know of -- but I know for a fact that nobody from the Morgantown Police Department assisted in any way and no one was present,” Preston said. “The department does not know where they were, nor why they were in any particular areas.”

While questions remain about the specifics of where these operations took place and what charges will be brought against those who were detained, many in the Morgantown area have spoken out against the activity. 

Morgantown resident Alissa Ponzurick attended Tuesday’s city council meeting hoping to spur action from local officials. 

“They're being ripped out of their beds at night. These people are kicking in their doors. What are we going to do about it? And I want an answer,” Ponzurick said. “Because if we're going to stand by idly here as our fellow neighbors are ripped out of their beds at night, and go on as if life just is normal -- then I have a real problem living here.”

Officials from ICE have not responded to repeated requests for interviews and have denied permission to interview those detained. In emails with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, they called last week’s activity in the area “routine targeted enforcement operations” but have provided no details on how, when, where or why these operations took place. 

But we do know a few details about who was detained and where they’ve been sent. According to information provided by the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, 15 people -- most of whom are originally from Mexico -- were booked last week on ICE-related charges. We don’t know why they were arrested or where those arrests occurred.

ICE’s Online Detainee Locator System showed on Tuesday that many of them were transferred to a federal detention center in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. By Thursday, that system showed no information on any of those we’ve identified as a detainee.

Joseph Cohen is the director of the ACLU of West Virginia. He and his organization have been following ICE’s recent activity. He expressed some frustration about the lack of information. 

“We're still learning about what happened last week. We've been in contact with folks who are in contact with people who've been detained by ICE,” Cohen said. “There's still a lot to learn. I have a lot of questions about what happened last week. But this is an ongoing problem. It's not just what happened in West Virginia in the last few days.”

But Cohen said that the recent flurry of ICE activity is part of a larger trend here, where “clusters” of operations and arrests occur from time to time. 

“ICE operates in West Virginia all the time. All the time. There aren’t great numbers on state-by-state arrest data by ICE. But by the best numbers we can find, West Virginia appears to be -- given the tiny population of the state per capita -- the place where the highest number of ICE arrests happen in the United States,” Cohen explained.

Cohen says the ACLU of West Virginia ascertained that fact by taking data collected by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and cross-referencing it with an analysis from the Pew Research Center. That analysis shows West Virginia’s undocumented immigrant population is less than 5,000.

With so few undocumented immigrants and ICE operating sercretively and not providing details on the arrests -- the reaction to such activity in West Virginia often causes a panic. 

Allison Peck is the director of the WVU College of Law’s Immigration Clinic. She said her office has gotten calls about ICE’s recent activity.

“I have also been hearing a lot of concerned members of the community. Some have contacted us, some we've heard from by word of mouth,” Preck said. “As a member of the community and as a citizen, I feel concerned that people aren't confident that they know what their rights, aren’t confident that they know what's coming.”

Peck says anyone approached by ICE agents does not have to answer questions and can exercise their right to remain silent. She says anyone detained who is afraid of returning to their home country can ask for an asylum review process. 

Those who have been in the United States continuously for two years can show documents to an ICE officer to avoid being potentially subject to expedited removal.