This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—It didn't take long for Immigrations and Cutoms Enforcement (ICE) and the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) to find a way to work together.
Just four months after a policy was put in place limiting NBPD's co-operation with ICE agents on immigration matters, at least two local cops were spotted at the scene of a federal cocaine bust that brought a slew of agents from ICE's Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) to the city.
The federal agency has come under fire from advocates for immigrant rights and civil liberties recently, as news reports have described how the agency unlawfully detained a US citizen for several years, arrested domestic violence victims at courthouses, and deported some of the country's best and brightest young people.
On June 27, nearly a dozen black, unmarked vehicles, with either New Jersey or New York plates, lined a block of Redmond Street, and nearly as many plainclothes officers were on-scene at any given time.
NBPD Detective Victor Delgado and Captain JT Miller were both observed at the unusual crime scene, located on a block where there are just as many actively-occupied homes as boarded-up, vacant ones.
Apparently hoping to conceal his identity from the public, one law enforcement officer donned a Nike-brand "hyperwarm hood" that resembled a ski mask or a ninja mask.
The law enforcement presence included not just NBPD and HSI, but also at least one detective with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO), the mysterious masked man, and a paid spokesperson from ICE's Newark office.
That spokesperson refused to say what the case was about, only ruling out terrorism, and would not confirm or deny if the masked man worked for the federal government.
"We cover everything, from child exploitation to gangs, to terrorism," said Alvin Phillips, who initially said he did not want to go on camera.
The narcotics siezure and arrests came just over a month after a big marijuana bust at a Metuchen warehouse caused ICE and local law enforcement to team up.
Phillips, however, did not make clear the reason for the Redmond Street bust, emphasizing only that it was a criminal investigation, and not one of the agency's "Enforcement and Removal" operations that have stoked fear among the city's immigrant community recently.
"There is no need for the public to be alarmed. This is not an enforcement and removal operation," Phillips emphasized.
Enforcement and removal operations, which often target those with non-criminal immigration violations, been taking place at an increased clip this year in the very same neighborhood.
So far, none of the three agencies involved have owned up to employing the masked man who nonchalantly roamed the porch of a Fourth Ward home while other plainclothes investigators went about their work.
HSI agents were also evasive when asked about the masked man, but one acknowledged that their officers might don masks from time to time.
"Sometimes, people don't want to be on TV or the internet," the agent told New Brunswick Today in a polarizing video released on our Facebook page.
Some viewers felt the mask was over the top and inappropriate, while others maintained it was a necessary precaution often employed by undercover officers to protect themselves and their families from retaliation.
While some in the neighborhood were spooked by the masked man's presence, he and the other law enforcement agents co-existed peacefully with Redmond Street's residents, including a couple of young kids who befriended them during the hours-long operation.
"There were several officers there. I was there myself," said Captain Miller, who did not answer repeated emailed inquiries about the masked man. "That investigation had nothing to do with immigration status."
When all was said and done, officials seized eight kilograms of cocaine in total. The officer working the case for NBPD appeared to be Detective Victor Delgado.
"It's a public safety hazard," Miller said at the August 2 City Council meeting, defending the collaboration that led to three local men being charged with conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine.
Palemon Silvestre Sierra, age 41, was arrested at the home, located 302 Redmond Street, where authorities say they found six kilograms of the drug.
Located in the Fourth Ward near the Northeast Corridor railroad, the home was apparently an epicenter of attention that afternoon for federal law enforcement. But this bust started on Remsen Avenue earlier that afternoon.
There, 30-year-old Yunior Martinez-Jimenez, of Somerset, and 33-year-old city resident Indhira de los Santos Padilla met up with two other individuals, allegedly to sell them two kilograms of cocaine.
According to the US Attorney's Office, one of the individuals refused to follow Martinez-Jimenez to a second location, apparently Sierra's home on Redmond.
"Law enforcement observed Sierra exit the residence, retrieve an empty bag from Martinez- Jimenez’s vehicle, return to the residence and emerge minutes later with the bag, which he gave back to Martinez-Jimenez and Padilla," read the official press release.
Martinez-Jimenez and Padilla went back to Remsen Avenue to meet the two customers, with Padilla allegedly handing the bag to them through a car window.
Law enforcement quickly converged on the scene and arrested Martinez-Jimenez and Padilla, finding two kilograms of cocaine in the bag.
Then, "at the direction of law enforcement, Martinez-Jimenez delivered the narcotics proceeds to Sierra at the Redmond Street residence. Sierra was then arrested," according to the official statement.
The cops who searched the residence allegedly seized another six kilograms of cocaine from Sierra’s bedroom.
The surreal scene drew a crowd of concerned residents who gathered to observe, including several news reporters and community advocates.
Immigration enforcement, and local collaboration with ICE, have been hot topics in 2017, sparked largely by the policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
Earlier this year, advocates descended on city and county government meetings demanding local law enforcement limit their collaboration with ICE's questionable requests to detain individuals without a warrant.
Though the collaboration apparently comports with the NBPD's February 2017 policy on what it will and won't do to help ICE, it conflicts with some of the statements made by officials confronted at public meetings by citizens asking them to take a stronger stance against the controversial federal agency.
On Febuary 15, Mayor James Cahill's wishes were expressed through his Business Administrator Tom Loughlin III at a City Council meeting.
Loughlin indicated that the Mayor "believes in his policy that our PD will not cooperate with ICE investigations and operations and in asmuch as he's the chief executive officer of the city, he's got the power to enforce that policy."
On March 1, Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar acknowledged that Trump was "kind of not my President at this time," and she said, "I do not believe that the police should be assisting ICE."
Over time, however, Escobar acknowledged situations where she believes cooperation with ICE was warranted.
Asked about the most recent instance of collaboration, Escobar responded, "They did the right thing."