WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing an immigration enforcement blitz next month that would target arrests in U.S. cities and jurisdictions that have adopted “sanctuary” policies, according to three U.S. officials who described a plan with public messaging that echoes the president’s law-and-order campaign rhetoric.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation, known informally as the “sanctuary op,” could begin in California as soon as later this week. It would then expand to cities including Denver and Philadelphia, according to two of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive government law enforcement plans.
Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, likely will travel to at least one of the jurisdictions where the operation will take place to boost President Donald Trump’s claims that leaders in those cities have failed to protect residents from dangerous criminals, two officials said.
Trump has inveighed against so-called sanctuary jurisdictions throughout his presidency, and he has expanded those attacks to include Democratic mayors in cities convulsed by racial justice protests and sporadic rioting after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in May. The immigration operation would sync with two themes of Trump’s reelection campaign: His crackdown on immigration his push to vilify cities led by Democrats, who he blames for crime and violence.
Two officials with knowledge of plans for the “sanctuary op” described it as more of a political messaging campaign than a major ICE operation, noting that the agency already prioritizes immigration violators with criminal records and routinely arrests them without much fanfare.
ICE officials have repeatedly warned cities and counties considering sanctuary policies that the agency would send more agents to make arrests into their jurisdictions, not fewer, if they go forward with their plans.
“We do not comment on any law enforcement sensitive issues that may adversely impact our officers and the public,” Mike Alvarez, an ICE spokesman, said Tuesday in response to questions about the planned raids. “However, every day as part of routine operations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement targets and arrests criminal aliens and other individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws.”
Alvarez said jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with ICE increase risks for agents and the public more broadly.
“Generally speaking, as ICE has noted for years, in jurisdictions where cooperation does not exist and ICE is not allowed to assume custody of aliens from jails, ICE is forced to arrest at-large criminal aliens out in the communities instead of under the safe confines of a jail,” he said.
Cities and jurisdictions with sanctuary policies that eschew or prohibit coordination with ICE typically refuse to hold immigrants in jail longer than they are required to so that ICE officers can take them into custody. Such cities also do not help ICE by checking the legal status of suspects who are arrested or detained for minor offenses.
ICE agents operating in sanctuary jurisdictions still may take custody of suspected immigration violators, but without local cooperation they face the added challenge of finding out when those individuals will be released from jail and do not have the benefit of a coordinated handoff.
The policies, which have been adopted in many of the country’s largest cities, have a significant impact on ICE operations by limiting the number of potential deportees who can be easily taken into custody.
According to the latest statistics, 70% of the arrests ICE makes occur after the agency has been notified about an immigrant’s pending release from jails or state prisons. ICE has lodged more than 160,000 of such “detainers” with local law enforcement agencies since 2019, the agency said.
Sanctuary policies also have worsened a large backlog of what ICE calls “at-large criminal and fugitive aliens ICE seeks to apprehend,” according to the agency.
Officials in sanctuary jurisdictions say their policies preserve community trust in immigrant neighborhoods, where officers need local residents to report crimes and cooperate with local police without fear of being deported.
The Trump administration has periodically threatened to run operations targeting sanctuary cities, including one plan to bus migrants from the border and release them in San Francisco and other Democratic-run jurisdictions. Trump also has threatened to strip those governments of federal funding.
White House officials pushed hard last year for a “family op” targeting migrant parents with children, but that effort did not yield the large volume of arrests Trump was seeking. The president tipped off that operation, announcing it in a tweet. Some ICE officials privately attributed the operation’s underwhelming results to Trump’s boasting and indiscipline.
Upon learning of prior operations, immigrants in numerous cities have gone deeper underground, fearing that they might be arrested and deported while their children — sometimes U.S. citizens — will be left behind.
The idea for a campaign publicizing criminal arrests in sanctuary jurisdictions has been floated repeatedly during the Trump administration, two officials said, and was under consideration actively this spring before the coronavirus pandemic. After the outbreak, ICE deferred some of its enforcement plans, citing health risks, and during that time, the agency’s arrests dropped by about one-third, statistics show.
The decision by then-acting director Matt Albence was popular with ICE personnel who worried about exposing their families to the virus, but Trump administration officials were irritated and wanted the president to be able to run on a campaign of tough enforcement, according to ICE and DHS officials who did not want to get in trouble with the White House. Albence retired last month.
Alexei Woltornist, a DHS spokesman, said the department “does not comment on or confirm allegedly leaked operational plans.”
On Monday ICE announced a dozen arrests in Mecklenburg County, N.C., where voters elected a sheriff in 2018 who curbed the jurisdiction’s cooperation with ICE. That campaign was featured prominently in the Netflix documentary series Immigration Nation.
In a statement, ICE official Henry Lucero said the agency “cannot stand by idly while knowing the public is being misled about the role ICE plays in keeping the public safe.”
“The fact is local policies prohibiting agencies from working with ICE put you in danger and waste police resources,” Lucero said. “The public should hold its leaders accountable and demand to know what type of criminals are being released from local custody instead of turned over to ICE.”
ICE said six of these arrests included immigrants with criminal convictions who were wanted for deportation, a decision that left them “free to reoffend until their capture.”