The Corner

How Customs and Immigration Nearly Let a Suspected Terrorist Get Away

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General unveiled an unnerving report today: If you’re a federal agent hot on the trail of a suspected terrorist, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office won’t let you arrest the suspect in their offices because they mistakenly believe it’s “against policy.”

On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed the San Bernardino terrorist attack, killing 14 people and injuring 22.

After the shocking attack, law enforcement and counter-terrorism personnel went to work developing leads to potential accomplices, known associates or other terrorists. The good news is that less than 24 hours later, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force found that Mariya Chernykh, a Russian national attempting to adjust her immigration status, was married to Enrique Marquez, an associate of Syed Rizwan Farook, and that Chernykh had an appointment at 12:30 p.m. on December 3 at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office in San Bernardino. This is the morning following the attack.

You may recognize Marquez as the man accused of providing the San Bernardino shooters with their rifles and allegedly plotting with Farook in 2011 and 2012 to carry out attacks at Riverside City College and on the 91 Freeway.

The JTTF believed that Marquez might accompany Chernykh to the appointment, and they contacted the Immigration and Customs Service’s Homeland Security Investigations, instructing them to dispatch a team to the CIS office to prevent any possible further attacks as well as to detain Marquez and Chernykh for questioning.

Five HSI agents, dressed in tactical gear, arrived shortly after 12:30 into the lobby U.S. Customs and Immigration Office in San Bernardino. They were met by Federal Protective Service contract security personnel. The HSI team told the guards they’re looking for Marquez, the matter was urgent, and the person they’re looking for may be connected to the shootings the prior day.

Here’s where our action-packed tale goes wrong. According to the inspector general’s report, “the FPS guards advised the HSI agents that they had to stay in the lobby until the Field Office Director approved their entry.”

Picture it: five federal agents in tactical gear rush into the building lobby, and the guy at the front desk basically asks if they have an appointment.

It gets worse: “According to the FPS contract guards, the Field Office Director did not answer her phone, so an FPS guard searched the building, subsequently found her, and advised her that HSI agents were looking to obtain information regarding a Russian female and Hispanic male who may have been connected to the shootings the previous day.” The field office director is not identified in the report, but the office’s web site lists her as Irene Martin, and she’s been in that position since at least 2010.

The inspector general found that the HIS agents were confined to the lobby for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, then escorted to a conference room by the building guards, where they met with the field office director. According to the HSI agents’ accounts, they waited approximately 10 more minutes in the conference room before the field office director arrived.

The agents told her they were looking for Marquez because he was connected to the shootings and there was concern that he could be in the building. The director told the agents they “were not allowed to arrest, detain, or interview anyone in the building based on USCIS policy, and that she would need to obtain guidance from her superior before allowing them access.”

This is like a scene out of ’24,’ where a sniveling bureaucrat tells Jack Bauer he has to fill out all his paperwork before he can chase the fleeing terrorist. The inspector general states:

When interviewed by OIG, the Field Office Director denied telling the agents they were not allowed to arrest, detain, or interview anyone in the building.

However, her account is contradicted by that of the other HSI agents present.

Moreover, the Field Office Director herself reiterated to OIG agents during her interview her belief that it was against USCIS “procedure” for law enforcement to detain or interview individuals on USCIS property. 

HSI believed that the Field Office Director was not going to cooperate in their effort to locate Marquez, so they left the building and regrouped in the parking lot.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Customs and Immigration Service officials had determined that yes, it was permissible for HSI to make an arrest in their offices (duh) and to hand over CIS files on the suspect to the pursuing law enforcement officers. The order goes back down the chain, taking another hour.

More than an hour after the Homeland Security agents arrived at the building, the field office director called one of the agent’s cell phone and told them that they could return to look through the file. The agents returned and viewed the file, “hand-copying information they deemed relevant to the investigation.” What, they couldn’t let terrorist-hunting federal agents use the photocopier?

Luckily for all involved, Marquez wasn’t there and the delay didn’t impede catching him. 

Hours after the Dec. 2 attack, Marquez showed up at the UCLA Harbor Medical Center and told the staff that he knew “the guy from San Bernardino” and was admitted to psychiatric ward. He said that he had consumed about nine beers and said “I’m involved,” according to the complaint.

Just a few days ago, federal prosecutors claimed Marquez had connections to other groups of “jihadists” in California who were arrested in 2012. 

The inspector general reports, “Contrary to the Field Office Director’s assertion, there is no USCIS policy, written procedure, or documented standard operating procedures pertaining to arrests, detentions, or interviews by DHS law enforcement personnel in USCIS facilities. USCIS, HSI, and FPS personnel all recall that historically, HSI and FPS have made arrests at USCIS facilities.”

Sanctuary cities are bad enough. Now we’ve got terrorist sanctuary federal office buildings.

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