Federal immigration officers refused to let an armed team of agents into their office to detain the accused conspirator in December’s San Bernardino terrorist attack, government officials acknowledged Tuesday, exposing an embarrassing lack of communication within the Department of Homeland Security.
Those who ran the legal immigration benefits office in San Bernardino refused to let a team from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement enter to detain and hold Enrique Marquez so the FBI could interview him later, said Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
It turned out that Mr. Marquez didn’t show up for the meeting at the immigration office, but Mr. Johnson said the lack of communication among U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the benefits branch, and Homeland Security Investigations, which is an enforcement division within the Homeland Security Department, was stunning.
“We had a team, armed up, potentially dealing with a terrorist, they had a tip from the FBI that Mr. Marquez might be at the USCIS office, and the officer in charge of USCIS wouldn’t allow HSI into the building,” the senator said.
Even after discovering that Mr. Marquez didn’t show, the USCIS officers refused to turn over his immigration file to the enforcement agents. Instead, they gave only a photocopy of his picture, Mr. Johnson said.
Leon Rodriguez, director of USCIS, said their policy is generally not to allow enforcement agents into their offices, but said in this case it was a misunderstanding where the folks on the ground in San Bernardino didn’t understand the situation.
“Unfortunately, it all happened so quickly that it was incorrectly perceived that our folks were trying to in some way obstruct what ICE was trying to do,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “There was never an actual intent to prevent them from doing what they needed to do.”
Mr. Johnson countered that whatever the intent, the agents were stopped.
Homeland Security also came under fire for having failed to detain an illegal immigrant charged with killing a young woman bystander in a drunken-driving drag race.
Omaha police had asked ICE to come pick up Eswin Mejia after he posted bond for the vehicular homicide charge, but ICE agents didn’t show up in the four-hour window between the time he posted bond and when he was released.
Mr. Mejia has since fled, and neither police nor immigration agents are able to say where he is.
ICE Director Sarah Saldana implied that the agents didn’t show up because Sarah Root, the 21-year-old victim, was only badly injured at the time of the call and died later.
“I understand that that person was injured and had not — within that four-hour period of time — [seemed] seriously injured, but had not passed away until later,” Ms. Saldana said.
She seemed to admit, however, that her agents erred in not showing up.
“It’s easy to look back and say that judgment was poorly exercised, and as I said earlier, I intend to learn from this particular incident,” she said.