Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission votes to approve immigration policy changes

By: - December 17, 2019 3:44 pm
Voces de la Frontera the day José de la Cruz-Espinoza was released. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Voces de la Frontera the day Jose de la Cruz-Espinoza was released. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission voted on Dec. 12 to approve changes to the police department’s standard operating procedure for immigration enforcement, called SPO-130, proposed by the group Voces de la Frontera. If approved in an upcoming meeting this Wednesday, Dec. 18, police would be required to have a warrant signed by a judge before helping in any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation operations.

“Voces de la Frontera put out a clear policy requiring a judicial warrant in order for the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) to cooperate with [ICE],” said the immigrant rights group’s executive director, Christine Neumann-Ortiz. “This position is legal; it’s not going to threaten funding; it’s been passed by many other cities and has been upheld by courts.”

ICE agents have been known to approach undocumented immigrants with administrative warrants, which are warrants signed only by an agent’s supervisor.

Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Voces de la Frontera Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Organizers and activists with Voces de la Frontera have pushed MPD to strengthen its immigration policies throughout 2019. The matter came to a head with the arrest of a Milwaukee man by ICE in September. José (Alex) Alejandro de la Cruz-Espinoza was arrested one morning in front of his wife and daughters as they prepared to take their children to school. This sparked weeks of rallies at Milwaukee’s City Hall where dozens of community members, brought together by Voces de la Frontera, called on the city to close the door to ICE operations. On several occasions José’s wife, American-born Kristine de la Cruz, joined the rallies to plead for a change in MPD’s policies, often in tears.

Born in Mexico, de la Cruz-Espinoza had lived in the country for 20 years, in which time he was able to open a small construction company. He also played in a local band, and worked on cars on the side to help provide for his family. At the time of his arrest, de la Cruz-Espinoza was on probation for misdemeanor possession of a firearm, after an officer found him in possession of his wife’s legally owned firearm. After spending more than 70 days inside the Dodge County ICE detention facility, he was released on a $4,000 bond last week. MPD officers were filmed aiding ICE agents in de la Cruz-Espinoza’s arrest by forming a perimeter between the arresting officers and Voces de la Frontera organizers who had been called to the scene via the organization’s hotline.

Marc Christopher, an immigration lawyer representing de la Cruz-Espinoza, says that although the case is still ongoing, he’s confident in José’s chances. “The reason he got bond was because the judge determined that he was not a danger to re-offend, or was not a danger to society,” Christopher told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think those are all positive factors,” he continued, factors which will be weighed in determining if de la Cruz-Espinoza will be allowed to stay in the country. If they prevail, explains Christopher, “he’ll be able to become a permanent resident and stay in the country.”

Christopher suspects that ICE targeted de la Cruz-Espinoza after combing through databases filled with information entered after people are put on probation. Things like country of origin, Spanish surnames, and lack of Social Security numbers are all things agents will look for in people entered in the probation database. This well of information can be accessed by law enforcement personnel, and is one way ICE tracks down people they’ll ultimately target with arrest and deportation. Under the former Sheriff David Clarke Jr., explains Christopher, “they [ICE] would actually communicate with jail staff to see their inmate list.” Since Clarke was replaced by Sheriff Earnell Lucas, who has said he doesn’t support working heavily with the agency, this has ceased.

The news that the FPC approved changes came a day after de la Cruz-Espinoza’s release, which was also a day after his wedding anniversary. “We’re glad the FPC Committee rejected a proposal from the Police Chief that would have included six loopholes allowing working with ICE agents even without a judicial warrant,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “These over broad exceptions would have opened the door to racial profiling and unconstitutional detentions and lead to unjust ICE detentions and deportations.”

Both the campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tweeted in support of the de la Cruz family, and Voces’ efforts to close loopholes in the police department’s policy which opens the door for further cooperation with ICE. “We hope that Mayor Tom Barrett will speak out to support the changes made by the FPC committee and urge the full Commission to approve them next week,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.