U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested a 22-year-old undocumented student in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of Downtown Los Angeles, on Thursday morning.
The arrest of Claudia Rueda-Vidal has left immigrant rights groups asking why Border Patrol agents targeted the young student some 137 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s something that’s caught a lot of us off guard,” Monika Langarica, an immigration attorney that focuses on representing immigrants facing deportation, told Fusion.
“I practice in San Diego and beyond the border we don’t feel as heavy of a Border Patrol presence as there has been in LA in the past few weeks,” said Langarica, who is representing Rueda-Vidal.
In 1953, The Department of Justice adopted the 100-mile border zone policy that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a port of entry. But with Customs and Border Protection officials currently reporting illegal border crossings at a 17-year low, the agents may be moving far past the 100-mile border zone. A Border Patrol official told Fusion agents can operate in LA County during investigations.
Rueda-Vidal is currently a student at California State University, Los Angeles. She is active in the immigrant rights movement and part of a group called the Immigrant Youth Coalition. Hundreds of students are expected to graduate at the commencement ceremony on Saturday, but Rueda-Vidal’s arrest has sparked enough anxiety and questions on campus that the university president emailed students a statement denouncing the practice of targeting students based on their immigration status.
Rueda-Vidal, Langarica told Fusion, stepped outside of her home in Boyle Heights on Thursday morning to move her car to the opposite side of the street. It’s a routine practice many Angelenos have to deal with on street cleaning days to avoid a parking ticket. But before Rueda-Vidal could get out of the car, three vehicles surrounded her and agents arrested her.
Langarica says no one bothered to tell the Rueda-Vidal’s family they had arrested her, so for hours, they searched frantically.
Rueda-Vidal’s mother was supporting her education and paying for school fees with her “very meager wages working at a local bakery,” her attorney said. The family was saving up to pay for the more than $500 application processing fee so Rueda-Vidal could apply for DACA, the federal program that provides young immigrants a temporary work permit and protection from deportation.
“She just didn’t have money to pay the DACA fees and now we’re in this situation,” Langarica told Fusion in a telephone interview.
Local immigrant rights advocates say Rueda-Vidal’s arrest could be in retaliation for leading a campaign and organizing protests that put a spotlight on her mother’s own arrest by Border Patrol and her ultimate release from immigration custody. Her mother was released on $2,000 bail last Friday. Less than a week later, agents came after Rueda-Vidal.
“When you look at the steps that were taken, those actions suggest really vile retaliatory behavior,” Langarica said.
A Border Patrol spokesperson told Fusion that on March 18, Border Patrol agents conducted enforcement actions in Los Angeles as part of a criminal investigation of a cross-border narcotics smuggling organization. They arrested seven individuals who are allegedly associated with the smuggling ring. More than 30 pounds of cocaine and $600,000 in cash were found in the same apartment complex where Rueda-Vidal lives, according to Los Angeles Times.
Agents arrested Rueda-Vidal’s mother, Teresa Vidal-Jaime, at the time but she was released last week after posting a $2,000 bail, a relatively low amount in immigration courts where immigration bonds typically can go from a minimum of $1,500 to $20,000. She was never charged with any criminal activity but Border Patrol officials continue to say she was arrested in connection with the ongoing investigation. The LA Times is reporting Teresa Vidal-Jaime’s husband was also arrested.
Border Patrol officials confirmed they arrested and are detaining Claudia Rueda-Vidal for a federal immigration violation, connecting her to “two target residences” and an ongoing investigation.
The agency did not respond directly to accusations that the arrest was made in retaliation for her activism, but said the arrest was part of a “targeted enforcement effort based on a criminal investigation.”
Langarica, her attorney, told Fusion that the Border Patrol’s own actions contradict those allegations: “If there was in fact any evidence to support involvement in a trafficking operation, she would currently be in criminal custody and she would be criminally investigated,” she said.
“A lot of the things that we thought we knew about how immigration enforcement should work is proving to not be the way that we thought it was,” said Langarica.
Update: Friday, 6:50 PM EST
An earlier version of this story stated Teresa Vidal-Jaime was released on bail after a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to suggest she was part of any narcotics or trafficking organization. Vidal-Jaime was never charged with any criminal activity and was released on bail by an immigration judge because she does not pose a danger or flight risk.