Program Meant To Fight Terrorism and Narcotrafficking Is Being Used to Target The Undocumented Community
Opposition to Operation Stonegarden, however, is spreading; one Arizona county just rejected over $1 million of its funds.
On Feb. 7, air conditioning repairers Jorge Arroyo, 31, and his brother Inés were out on the job in Aransas County, Texas, about 150 miles southeast of San Antonio along the Gulf of Mexico. At noon, they piled into their truck to get lunch. When they approached a cafe, an Aransas County sheriff’s deputy stopped them and said the license plate on the truck was dirty and unreadable. The deputy also said Inés had failed to signal when he made a turn.
Inés, a legal resident of the U.S., showed his Texas driver’s license to the deputy. But then the deputy focused on Jorge and asked for a Texas ID. Even though people in the U.S. who aren’t driving a vehicle or suspected of a crime can refuse to produce identification, Jorge displayed his ID card from Mexico. The deputy then asked if he was in the U.S. illegally. After Jorge shook his head and said that he was not in the country legally, the deputy handcuffed him and called the Border Patrol.
Jorge has been in the U.S. for 12 years. He and his partner have two Texas-born daughters, and he was supporting his family with a steady job in the heating and cooling business. But within minutes of encountering the sheriff’s deputy, he was locked up at the Aransas County jail, awaiting transfer to ICE detention.
As Jorge sat behind bars, the deputy filled out an “Intelligence/Significant Event Report” form that was then handed over to a FEMA-funded and Border Patrol-administered program called Operation Stonegarden. In operation by 2004, Operation Stonegarden received $85 million this year for distribution to state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, constables, and city and tribal police. As of February the program was operating in 157 counties mostly on and near the southern border, purportedly to assist Border Patrol in combating serious, border-related crime such as narcotrafficking and terrorism.
Local law enforcement, however, appears to use Operation Stonegarden to round up undocumented immigrants like Jorge. It’s difficult to quantify how often the program is utilized to arrest undocumented people because Border Patrol instructs law enforcement to refuse open records requests for such data. But there is no doubt that the program’s funds have been used to target the undocumented community. In 2007, Otero County, New Mexico, and its sheriff were sued for working during Operation Stonegarden-paid time to illegally interrogate low-income Latinx people about their immigration status and to search homes for undocumented immigrants. In 2008, a federal judge issued an injunction forbidding use of Stonegarden resources in this manner. In 2009, concerns about racial profiling prompted the sheriff of Jefferson County, Washington, to refuse Operation Stonegarden funds. Concerned that his officers’ Operation Stonegarden work could damage relations with the Latinx community, the police chief of Indio, California, cut ties with the program in 2012.
Due in large part to open records request refusals, secrecy still surrounds Operation Soundgarden. Even immigration rights advocates know little about the program. That was true for years in Pima County, Arizona, which has more than one million residents and is the state’s second most populous county.
But in February, ACLU of Arizona attorney Billy Peard attended a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting and noticed that grants for $1.4 million for Operation Stonegarden were on the agenda. The county received funds from the program for 12 years—in addition to the sheriff, six police departments participated. Peard spoke against Operation Stonegarden during the public comment period, and supervisor Richard Elias, a Democrat, urged rejection of its funds. The board quickly voted against it. Two weeks later the board reinstated the grants pending review of possible problems with Stonegarden, including racial profiling. As the review played out over the following months, the community learned how the program’s funds have little oversight, fuel significant overtime spending for police, and are often used for activity unrelated to border security, such as crowd control at parades, soccer games, and funerals.
While Pima County reviewed Operation Stonegarden in the spring and summer, Peard contacted labor, faith-based, and civil rights activists to pressure the Board of Supervisors to reject the program. Because of the furor surrounding Trump administration’s separations of immigrant families, anti-Operation Stonegarden sentiment had grown to the point where the Board of Supervisors voted against using $1.4 million in grant funds in September. It was an unprecedented rejection of the program for a county as large as Pima.
No political opposition has surfaced in Aransas County, where Jorge Arroyo was turned over to Border Patrol. In February, he paid $4,000 bond to be released from ICE custody pending a removal hearing scheduled for next year plus $2,500 for a lawyer. It was money he was saving to buy a house for his family. Operation Stonegarden killed that dream, and now his hopes are simply focused on not being deported.