Attorney general joins invasion
A Romanian immigrant with no criminal record sits in detention as California prepares to battle Trump for the state’s soul
A day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions got the rock-star treatment in Sacramento (as in, local leaders wanted to throw rocks at him), Felicia Ciuciu wondered if her husband would ever come home.
According to booking logs from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, 41-year-old Ion Ciuciu, a Romania-born immigrant residing in north Sacramento, was one of 232 people snatched up last month by federal immigration authorities conducting a torrid sweep through central and Northern California.
The four-day enforcement operation that concluded February 28 was just the opening salvo in the Trump administration’s campaign to destabilize California, the state that has most vexed his anti-immigrant agenda. A week later, Sessions arrived in the capital to snarl downtown traffic and raise the stakes.
Addressing a gathering of the California Peace Officers Association inside the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel, Sessions goaded lawmakers as secessionist “radicals” pushing for an “open-border system.” Trump’s top justice minion wasn’t done with the divisive rhetoric, either. Stumping on behalf of a federal lawsuit challenging California’s sanctuary laws, Sessions demanded that the state “stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement.”
“Our citizens want our government to think about them for a change,” Sessions said in his March 7 address. “They have dreams, too.”
The attorney general seemed to be making a dig at the thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and are called Dreamers because they only know America as their home. Rather than describe America as a place where all can flourish, Sessions pitted the fates of these childhood arrivals against the success of Donald Trump’s America-first agenda.
“This concept was a big part of President Trump’s election,” Sessions contended. “And elections have consequences.”
Indeed they do. Since taking office, Trump has engineered a draconian hardening of U.S. immigration policy and sought to change America’s reputation from a land of inclusion to one of white-identity elitism. Among his accomplishments in this endeavor: removing protections for Dreamers, cutting pathways to legal citizenship and emboldening his deportation force to pursue all people living in the country without government permission. Instead of prioritizing the deportation of convicted criminals, as the Obama administration sought to do, Trump and his envoys paint all undocumented immigrants as violent or dangerous threats to domestic security.
But facts, as they often do, contradict the president.
By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own estimation, less than half of the undocumented immigrants that its deportation officers targeted between Bakersfield and the Oregon border last month had been convicted of a felony.
Ion Ciuciu appears to be one of the taken majority.
Ciuciu has no criminal record in Sacramento or Placer counties, online court records show. The former county is where he lives with his wife and two children; the latter is where Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, intercepted him at the jail in Auburn.
Standing outside a small rental unit notched into a belt of moth-brown rowhouses, Felicia Ciuciu wore a worried expression as she spoke about the husband who disappeared weeks earlier. It wasn’t until she received a phone call from authorities that she learned what happened to Ion.
“The police they take him,” Felicia said through a family friend, who translated on the condition of anonymity. “Immigration take him.”
Ion Ciuciu’s attorney, Luiza Miller, says it appears that local law enforcement arrested her client on a theft charge, and that’s how he came to the attention of immigration authorities. But Miller cautions that much remains unknown.
“We don’t know what immigration has on him,” Miller said from her Culver City office. “We don’t know the facts at this point.”
Ciuciu’s wife suggests he was the victim of a false allegation. Felicia Ciuciu says her husband was inside a store with another man when the owner grew suspicious they were going to steal something. The owner locked the doors and called police, who arrived minutes later and arrested Ion, Felicia says.
The family put up $7,000 to post his bail. But before he was released from the jail, ICE agents took Ion into custody, his wife says.
“They don’t know why the immigration took him, because they paid the bond,” said a second family friend, who asked that his name be withheld over immigration concerns. “They said that they took him from the jail.”
It’s unclear whether Ciuciu’s detention was extended after his family posted bail; such a thing would be illegal in California. Under state law, correctional institutions are prohibited from incarcerating undocumented immigrants longer than the law allows, even to honor so-called ICE “detainers.”
The Trump administration has interpreted California’s upholding of Fourth Amendment protections for all state residents as a provocation. ICE acknowledged that last month’s operation was meant to deliver a retort.
“ICE has no choice but to continue to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community,” the agency said in a press release.
Federal deportation operatives may have started their secret invasion of Northern California earlier than reported. About one week before the immigration sweep, two uniformed border patrol agents came onto a Sacramento community college campus without permission. According to an email American River College President Thomas G. Greene distributed to faculty, the agents approached an information counter and asked for directions to the career center. Greene’s email says that staff “immediately” alerted campus police, but the agents left before officers arrived.
“This situation highlights the heightened level of fear and uncertainty felt by and for our undocumented students, colleagues, their families, and communities,” Greene’s email states. “Recognizing this fact, I want to reiterate that we stand arm-in-arm with our undocumented students and employees, and we will do everything in our power to protect our community.”
ICE did not respond to requests for comment. Former spokesman James J. Schwab resigned this week from the agency over his concerns that ICE and its interim director were peddling inaccurate information to the public, the San Francisco Chronicle and other outlets reported.
If “California, we have a problem” Sessions came to Sacramento last week to preen and threaten like a chain gang boss, Gov. Jerry Brown was all too happy to play the role of Cool Hand Luke. Standing beside his own attorney general on March 7, Brown condemned Sessions’ appearance as a counterfactual political stunt meant to curry favor with an unhappy employer.
“Like so many in the Trump administration, this attorney general has no regard for the truth,” Brown said. “Maybe he’s trying to keep his job, because the president isn’t too happy with him.”
Promising a head-on defense of the state’s sanctuary policies, Brown also remarked on the chaos that has dominated the Trump presidency.
“This lawsuit is going to last a lot longer than the Trump administration,” Brown predicted.
For now, Ciuciu and hundreds of locally detained immigrants like him are prisoners of an uncertain future. His attorney says it could be difficult to keep him in the United States, despite Ciuciu’s claims of danger back home.
Miller says Ciuciu is Roma, a persecuted ethnic minority that migrated out of India centuries ago and has settled across much of Europe. Miller, who is also Romanian, says she’s been handling Romani asylum requests for the past five years. Many of her clients hail from Romania and say they have fled some sort of hostility back home, including physical violence and refusal of services.
Negative stereotypes about the Roma have fostered tensions in the countries they’ve migrated to, and sometimes prompted diasporas.
Still, Miller says, there is a growing belief that the formation of the European Union has made the continent more hospitable to the Roma. In the past year, she says, U.S. immigration judges have approved fewer asylum requests.
Of course, each case is unique, she says. “Everyone has their own story,” she said.
Miller says Ciuciu was arrested crossing the border in 2013 and released with paperwork notifying him he would need to appear before an immigration judge at a later date. But the government never followed up and Ciuciu went on with his life. Since arriving in Sacramento four-and-a-half years ago, Ciuciu wove a blue-collar existence, friends and relatives say, working in construction and raising his two children. Except for his recent immigration trouble, he kept a low profile, they say.
According to the limited public information that’s available, ICE agents apprehended Ciuciu in Placer County just after midnight on February 26. Fourteen hours later, he was transferred to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where the federal government rents space to detain undocumented immigrants being processed for deportation.
RCCC, as the facility is called, is operated by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which has partnered with ICE to detain immigrants locally since 2000.
Ciuciu phoned home over the weekend to inform his wife he had been moved from a crowded holding tank to a smaller cell in the aging facility.
“He doesn’t know if he can call anymore, and he doesn’t know why he was moved,” a friend said.
In many ways, Ciuciu is the poster child for Trump’s immigration strategy.
Trump derided the policies of the former administration as “catch-and-release” and vowed to ramp up deportations. Instead, his executive orders have created more detainees and further strained federal immigration courts, which reached an all-time high of 667,839 pending cases at the end of December, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Of the 100 counties with the largest backlogs, 19 were in California.
Miller says she expects to schedule a hearing before a federal immigration judge in San Francisco, where Ciuciu could formally request asylum.
“Right now we’re only at the beginning of the road,” Miller said.