The gently curving coastline of California runs along the Pacific Ocean in a smooth arc except for a piece of land that juts out in a triangle pattern. That piece of coast is the location of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Santa Maria, California office.
Santa Maria is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the San Rafael Mountains and is home to the historic Vandenberg Air Force Base. It is situated halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The area is dominated by agriculture. Strawberries, wine grapes, broccoli and head lettuce are just a few of the cash crops that generate more than one billion dollars in revenue each year. Because of the vast need for agricultural labor, the area attracts many foreign seasonal workers. Some are in the U.S. legally and some are not.
The ERO Santa Maria staff is primarily focused on the criminal element of illegal residents in their area of responsibility – 6,200 square miles and a population of more than 700,000 residents in two counties.
The ERO office serves as a staging area for individuals who are coming in and out of ICE custody. "We serve as a processing center Monday through Friday," said ERO Santa Maria Supervisory Deportation and Detention Officer (SDDO), Steven C. Finn, adding, "We provide those who are in our temporary custody with food, clothing if needed and let them call home, but we are just a stop on their way to Camarillo and then onto Los Angeles."
ERO Santa Maria focuses on the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) on a daily basis. The staff is responsible for interviewing and processing criminal aliens who are released from the local jails, one state prison – California Men's Colony (average of 4,100 inmates) and one federal prison – Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc (average 1,299 inmates). "ERO Santa Maria is in a great position to get where we need to be quickly," said SDDO Finn.
The office focuses on CAP but also is ready to lend a hand with fugitive or tactical operations when needed. This past June, the Federal Bureau of Investigation requested ERO Santa Maria's help in locating a fugitive wanted by the Austrian government. Within 12 hours, three Santa Maria officers, along with one HSI special agent and a local sheriff's deputy, made an arrest. SDDO Finn recalled: "This area is isolated so people come here to hide. We can track them down and we're pretty good at finding people up here."
In March 2016 the office worked with local police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on Operation Matador – an effort to disrupt the activities of the notorious MS-13 gang, which has been linked to more than 21 slayings from December 2014 to January 2016 in the Santa Maria area. The ERO officers joined SWAT teams and used ICE technology to help process those arrested and were able to determine their criminal records on the scene. The operation was the largest criminal takedown in Santa Barbara County history.
ERO Santa Maria personnel are committed to treating all of those they encounter humanely and with professionalism. Recently, a woman from Honduras walked 3 miles with her young daughter to the ERO office. She said she wanted to go home and had no money or resources. After learning about her situation, the Santa Maria ERO team reached out to First Five, a local nonprofit organization, in addition to the Honduran Consulate and Catholic Charities. The parties worked together to secure the mother and daughter housing, food, travel documents and plane tickets home.
The people of ERO Santa Maria are working each day to safeguard the American people with honor and integrity.