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ICE spokesman resigns, citing fabrications by agency chief and Attorney General Sessions about California immigrant arrests

  • Author: Meagan Flynn, The Washington Post
  • Updated: March 13
  • Published March 13

A Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bus outside a federal jail in San Diego. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File

The San Francisco spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has resigned over what he described as "false" and "misleading" statements made by top-ranking officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan.

The now-former spokesman, James Schwab, told news outlets late Monday that his resignation stemmed from statements by Homan and Sessions that potentially hundreds of "criminal aliens" evaded ICE during a Northern California raid in February because Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned the immigrant community in advance.

Schwab said he pushed back on that characterization - but said ICE instructed him to "deflect" questions from the press.

"I quit because I didn't want to perpetuate misleading facts," he told the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story. "I asked them to change the information. I told them that the information was wrong, they asked me to deflect, and I didn't agree with that. Then I took some time and I quit."

ICE officials and Sessions - and at one point President Donald Trump - criticized Schaaf for tipping off immigrants about the raid, which netted 232 suspected undocumented immigrants.

Homan said in a statement that "864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large in the community, and I have to believe that some of them were able to elude us thanks to the mayor's irresponsible decision. Unlike the politicians who attempt to undermine ICE's critical mission, our officers will continue to fulfill their sworn duty to protect public safety."

And just last week, in Sacramento, Sessions said, "Those are 800 wanted criminals that are now at large in that community - 800 wanted criminals that ICE will now have to pursue with more difficulty in more dangerous situations, all because of one mayor's irresponsible action."

Schwab, however, said that both the number of potential arrests and the blame heaped on Schaaf by officials was wrong.

As he told the Chronicle, "I didn't feel like fabricating the truth to defend ourselves against her actions was the way to go about it. We were never going to pick up that many people. To say that 100 percent are dangerous criminals on the street, or that those people weren't picked up because of the misguided actions of the mayor, is just wrong."

ICE spokeswoman Liz Johnson said in a statement Tuesday that “even one criminal alien on the street can put public safety at risk and as Director Homan stated, while we can’t put a number on how many targets avoided arrest due to the mayor’s warning, it clearly had an impact. While we disagree with Mr. Schwab on this issue, we appreciate his service and wish him well.”

Schwab also told CNN that, typically, ICE never arrests 100 percent of people it initially targets in an operation, creating a misleading picture that the missed arrests in the recent Northern California operation were unusual. In fact, he told Oakland Fox affiliate KTVU that the operation was not even originally expected to arrest 232 suspected undocumented immigrants, making it more successful than planned.

Meanwhile, President Trump, who called Schaaf a disgrace during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, said ICE was prepared to arrest "close to 1,000 people," but only got "a fraction" of that thanks to Schaaf.

"I just couldn't bear the burden - continuing on as a representative of the agency and charged with upholding integrity, knowing that information was false," Schwab told CNN.

Schwab is a longtime government spokesman, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before joining ICE in 2015, Schwab was a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Reserve Element, a public affairs office for the NASA Ames Research Center, and a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Defense.

ICE could not immediately be reached for comment by The Post regarding Schwab's assertions that it had released false and misleading information. The Chronicle quoted unnamed ICE officials confirming Schwab's resignation but declining to discuss specifics, citing confidentiality for personnel matters. A Justice Department spokesperson could not immediately be reached.

According to ICE, of the 232 people picked up in the raid, 115, or roughly half, had felonies or misdemeanors on their records.

Mayor Schaaf told The Washington Post in an interview earlier this month that she decided to warn the immigrant community of the impending ICE raid for fear that the operation was not wholly targeting "criminals," and that, instead, hard-working mothers or fathers without criminal records might end up arrested and deported. She told the story of Maria Mendoza-Sanchez, a mother of four and nurse at an Oakland public hospital, who was deported last August despite having no criminal record.

"Maria Mendoza-Sanchez and her husband are an example of a couple that, under the previous administration, were considered low-priority for deportation," Schaaf said. "And under this administration they were ripped away from their family. I was absolutely thinking of them when I made the decision to share the [ICE enforcement] information. I think it's my responsibility as a person in power and privilege to share the information I have access to, to make sure people know what their rights are."

On Monday, Schaaf applauded Schwab's decision to resign.

"I commend Mr. Schwab for speaking the truth while under intense pressure to lie," she said in a statement to The Post. "Our democracy depends on public servants who act with integrity and hold transparency in the highest regard."

Schwab said that, before resigning, as he was faced with questions from reporters about Homan's and Sessions' comments, he hoped he could set the record straight and correct the idea that hundreds of dangerous criminals got away thanks to Schaaf. But, when he brought his concerns to ICE, he said they told him to direct reporters to statements ICE or Homan had already made - to "deflect to previous statements," as he put it.

"It's the job of a public affairs officer to offer transparency for the agency you work for," he told the Chronicle. "I felt like we weren't doing that. I've never been in a situation when I've been asked to ignore the facts because it was more convenient."

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