The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit today aimed at alleged cooperation between Union Pacific Railroad Police (UPRP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). With several shady incidents identified, including railroad police turning over a homeless man to ICE last year after apprehending him in Santa Ana, a professor with Western State College of Law in Irvine filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to ICE in September.
“The relationship between ICE and UPRP is troubling and shrouded in secrecy,” the complaint reads. “Many of the individuals that UPRP has transferred to ICE are homeless and among the most vulnerable members of society.” It further alleges that the agency first claimed no records existed on the matter before putting a chill on a follow up appeal.
Filed on behalf of the Western State College of Law Immigration Clinic, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Public Counsel and the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, the ACLU suit seeks to declare ICE’s alleged withholding of records to be unlawful while compelling the agency to do a real search in forking over documents.
“There’s just no reason for a local enforcement officer, like a railroad officer, to get in the business of immigration enforcement,” Jennifer Koh, a professor of law at Western State who submitted the FOIA request and appeal, tells the Weekly. “Ultimately, if the Union Pacific Railroad Police is colluding with ICE, which it appears to be doing, we would want that kind of collaboration to stop. It’s a clear violation of the spirit of the Trust Act.”
First formed during the Wild West era, railroad police protected cargo from train robbers. None other than the notoriously anti-union detective Allen Pinkerton became the first railroad cop in 1855. Nowadays, Union Pacific Railroad Police enlists more than 175 officers that have the investigative and arresting authorities on and off railroad property–powers that the suit claims are being abused by teaming with la migra in California.
Take Jan. 17, 2018 for instance. That’s when railroad police are said to have arrested a homeless man on railroad property in Santa Ana during a morning “trespass sweep.” Then, they requested assistance from ICE after the man claimed foreign birth, the complaint alleges. Immigration authorities arrived a few hours later and transported the man to an ICE staging facility in Los Angeles.
In another incident mentioned in the suit, an undocumented man rode his bike along the San Gabriel River Trail one morning when he encountered railroad police and El Monte officers. Passing by them, a railroad cop allegedly asked where the man headed, but “home” didn’t prove to be a good enough answer. The officer also is said to have wanted to know if he had “papeles to work in this country,” too. The man responded that he didn’t. ICE arrived and transported him to the James A. Musick detention facility in Irvine soon after.
During deportation proceedings, “ICE did not deny that ICE agents collaborated” with railroad police in taking him into custody–away from his brother, daughters and grandchildren who all live in El Monte where he resided for more than 20 years.
“Before these cases started to come to light, most of us had never heard of the Union Pacific Railroad Police,” says Koh. “What they’re doing by holding people on the street without any kind of criminal probable cause is even worse, in some ways, than holding them in a jail for ICE authorities. What the railroad police are essentially doing is holding people at-will that they think ICE would be interested in.”
Railroad police also apprehended a homeless woman riding her bike near Union Pacific property in Van Nuys last year. The officer contacted ICE agents who later took her to an ICE facility in OC. The railroad cop in question later testified in immigration court that he followed protocol in alerting ICE because the woman couldn’t be positively identified.
“At Union Pacific, safety remains our highest priority,” says Tim McMahan, Union Pacific spokesman, via email. “Trespassing on railroad property is illegal and creates a hazard for the public as well as Union Pacific employees. Union Pacific works with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to remove trespassers, without regard to immigration status of any kind, from its property in accordance with local ordinances and state law.”
With alleged incidents, court testimony and ICE not denying collaboration with railroad police, Koh felt she had more than enough reason to seek out public records to learn more. A California Public Records Act request to Union Pacific ended before it began–the agency claimed they’re exempt from the state law. In Sept., Koh filed a FOIA request to ICE for communications, agreements and records regarding the cooperation in question, including how many people have been arrested, detained or questioned by ICE agents on account of it.
On Oct. 25, 2018, Koh got a letter stating that ICE found no records related to the quest. She followed up with a Nov. 5 appeal that ICE didn’t even bother acknowledging receipt of, something that prompted the ACLU’s federal suit.
Dozens of organizations also backed a letter sent to Union Pacific demanding an end to its collaboration with ICE, an effort that signatories say undermines the California Values Act, better known by its “Sanctuary State” nickname.
“Union Pacific is in the business of transporting goods and persons safely from place to place,” wrote Sameer Ahmed, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. “It should not be in the business of subjecting the most vulnerable members of our communities to intimidating interrogations, unlawful detentions, and the threat of deportation.”
Updated with a statement from Union Pacific and comments from Koh