SAN FRANCISCO - The communications director for the Northern California Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency quit, frustrated that he’s been told to tell the public “alternative facts.”
“I’m scared,” James Schwab admitted to KTVU. “But I need to have my integrity.”
Schwab turned in his resignation Friday.
Specifically, Schwab said that he was told to parrot the Department of Homeland Security’s account that an unspecified number of “criminals” got away, in part, because Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned of the pending ICE “Keep Safe” operation. The operation began on Feb. 25 and ended up netting 232 undocumented immigrants over the next several days across the northern part of the state.
"I commend Mr. Schwab for speaking the truth while under intense pressure to lie. Our democracy depends on public servants who act with integrity and hold transparency in the highest regard," Schaaf told KTVU in an email.
Schaaf has remained steadfast in her decision to alert the community about the raid. She reiterated that point last week with KTVU, saying that she deeply respects police, and “never gave any specific locations that could have endangered law enforcement.” She added: "How can it be illegal to tell people what their rights are?"
On Monday, Lori Haley, the western region communications director for ICE told KTVU that Schwab had resigned “abruptly.” At headquarters in D.C., ICE spokeswoman Liz Johnson said in an email 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."
On Feb. 27, Schwab sent a news release that stated in part, from Acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan: “The Oakland mayor’s decision to publicize her suspicions about ICE operations further increased that risk for my officers and alerted criminal aliens -- making clear that this reckless decision was based on her political agenda with the very federal laws that ICE is sworn to uphold.”
Homan continued: “Thanks to the dedicated and professional work of ICE deportation officers, we were able to remove many public safety threats from the streets of the Bay Area during the past few days. However, 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.”
While Schwab said he may not agree with Schaaf on everything she did, he said the original ICE projections were to arrest far fewer than the 232 people agents took into custody. He added the agency never expected to arrest all the undocumented immigrants during the operation. And so, operation “Keep Safe” was more successful than the agency had hoped, Schwab said. That despite the fact that President Donald Trump said that the agency would have netted "close to 1,000 people" had it not been for Schaaf.
When he told supervisors he was not comfortable perpetuating that narrative, Schwab said he was told by the Office of Public Affairs to repeat what was in the Feb. 27 news release and defer questions to the Department of Justice. He said he couldn’t do that any more.
Schwab said he doesn’t want to out any particular people in the agency but said he felt he had to make a statement by quitting to do the right thing in his mind. Schwab also made sure to point out that there are many individual ICE agents who are good, honest, hardworking people. They should not be blamed, Schwab said, as they are carrying out orders from the top.
He added when he took the job in August 2015 during the Obama administration, after having worked as a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Reserve in Mountain View and as a spokesman for the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field for more than 15 years, he never could have imagined what he would be asked to do.
Schwab’s resignation comes at a time when the federal government and the city of Oakland are in a heated war of words: The head of ICE and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have both accused Schaaf of acting like a gang lookout, warning the bad guys that police are coming to give them time to run away.
Sessions' spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores sent KTVU an email stating: "Does anyone seriously dispute that the mayor attempted to thwart the efforts of federal law enforcement to apprehended wanted aliens in Oakland--many of whom had previously been arrested or convicted for crimes ranging from drug trafficking, to domestic abuse, to child pornography? But if the anyone wants to have a public argument over precisely how many dangerous criminal aliens alluded arrest because of the mayor’s irresponsible actions, we are happy to have that debate. We believe in the rule of law and one criminal alien victimizing residents of Oakland is one too many.”
Schwab took the job one month after Kate Steinle was killed in San Francisco by Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant, and the ICE office was flooded with calls. He was the first person to ever head the communications strategy for the San Francisco office, which covers the Northern California and Northern Nevada region.