One October morning, Osny Sorto-Vasquez got a call from his mom and knew something was wrong. His younger siblings were crying in the background, and his mother sounded scared. A woman who identified herself as a detective with the local police had come to the home Vasquez shares with his family and told them someone was using their address to ship contraband through the mail—potentially putting them in danger. The woman showed the family a picture of a man who she said they were looking for.
“As soon as she said this person could hurt my family, I automatically went into panic mode,” Vasquez told The Daily Beast.
Sorto-Vasquez, a 24-year-old who came to the U.S. from Honduras as a child, is in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, which temporarily shields some young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Sorto-Vasquez, a nursing assistant, recently got a misdemeanor charge for driving under the influence. His lawyers told him it wouldn’t jeopardize his DACA status.
But his encounter with law enforcement—which he described to The Daily Beast from an immigration detention center in southern California—highlights a growing concern among undocumented immigrants: that when they hear from people who present themselves as local law enforcement, it could upend their lives. (The Daily Beast reported earlier this week that ICE is holding a record number of people in immigrant detention.)\
Sorto-Vasquez’s life was upended in a particularly jarring way: He told The Daily Beast he’s lost access to HIV-prevention medication.
Two days after that first call, back at home, Sorto-Vasquez got a call from the same woman.
“She said, ‘It’s me, we spoke with you on the phone on Monday,’” he recalled. “We’re with the local police department and we just want to make sure that everything’s OK and that you’re OK. We’re outside if you could come out and talk to us. And please bring your ID with you.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll come outside.’”
But it wasn’t the local police. It was ICE, and they had come to arrest him.
“‘You had a court date and you didn’t go to that court date,’” Sorto-Vasquez recalls one of the officers saying, referring to a hearing scheduled in immigration court for him years ago.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, I was 8 years old.’”
An ICE spokesperson said officers with the agency frequently identify themselves simply as police but do not claim to be with agencies other than ICE.
“ICE agents and officers never pretend that they are from any other law enforcement agency,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The situation Sorto-Vasquez faced has grown increasingly common under the Trump administration, according to immigration lawyers who spoke with The Daily Beast. While ICE officers capitalized on being mistaken for local police under previous administrations, the practice these days appears to be more frequent, these lawyers said.
“This is certainly something that’s been a trend, I think more so in the past year and a half than it had been previously,” said Heather Prendergast, an immigration attorney who formerly liaised with ICE for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Nobody’s telling them not to do it.”
“It seems more brazen now than it did in the past,” she added.
Tom Jawetz, who heads immigration policy work for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the practice can hamstring local police.
“I can’t imagine something that would more fundamentally undermine public faith in local law enforcement than federal immigration personnel falsely impersonating them in order to arrest and deport someone,” he said.
Sorto-Vasquez’s mother came to the U.S. from Honduras on temporary protected status—another form of legal protection. His aunt later brought him to the U.S. illegally. Immigration authorities set a date for Vasquez to appear in court and make the case for legal status. But, he told The Daily Beast, his mother wasn’t able to take him to court that day because she was ill. As a young child, Sorto-Vasquez did not understand that missing that hearing could have ramifications for the rest of his life. When he became an adult, his family explained to him that he didn’t have legal status. So he got protection under DACA.
Under the Trump administration, that protection is no longer good enough. Because of the misdemeanor DUI, ICE officers arrested him, put him in detention, and started working to send him back to Honduras.
An ICE spokesperson gave The Daily Beast this statement on Sorto-Vasquez’s case: “Mr. Sorto-Vasquez, a citizen of Honduras illegally residing in the U.S., was arrested Oct. 3 by deportation officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Records reveal that Mr. Sorto-Vasquez was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in May 2004, and ordered removed from the U.S. in November 2004, making him an immigration fugitive. In addition to the final order of removal, Mr. Sorto-Vasquez was convicted for driving under the influence last month.”
As an openly gay man, Sorto-Vasquez said he fears returning to Honduras, where LGBT people face harassment and violence. Since the coup in 2009, at least 215 LGBT people have been murdered there, according to The Guardian. But Sorto-Vasquez’s detention brings another health risk as well: He told The Daily Beast that medical staff at his detention center have refused to provide him with HIV prevention medication. Sorto-Vasquez’s doctor had prescribed him the medication, which he took before his detention. As a young gay man of color, his risk of contracting HIV is significantly higher than the general population’s. But his multiple efforts to have the prescription filled in detention haven’t succeeded, he said.
David Leopold, who formerly helmed the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said this appears to violate ICE’s own detention standards, which say detainees should have all medically necessary treatment.
“If he has the prescription and it’s been duly authorized by a licensed physician, then ICE should not be second-guessing whether it’s medically necessary,” Leopold said. “That’s splitting hairs, and I think it’s a violation of their own detention standards—which, unfortunately, is not surprising, and even less surprising under this administration.”
“They always like to cut costs,” she said, “and if they don’t have to do something, they’re not going to do it.”