A week after he won the election, President Donald Trump promised that his administration would round up millions of immigrant gang members and drug dealers. And after he took office, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers surged 40 percent.
Officials at the agency commonly known as ICE praise Trump for putting teeth back into immigration enforcement, and they say their agency continues to prioritize national security threats and violent criminals, much as the Obama administration did.
But as ICE officers get wider latitude to determine whom they detain, the biggest jump in arrests has been of immigrants with no criminal convictions. The agency made 37,734 “noncriminal” arrests in the government’s 2017 fiscal year, more than twice the number in the previous year. The category includes suspects facing possible charges as well as those without criminal records.
Critics say ICE is increasingly grabbing at the lowest-hanging fruit of deportation-eligible immigrants to meet the president’s unrealistic goals, replacing a targeted system with a scattershot approach aimed at boosting the agency’s enforcement statistics.
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ICE has not carried out mass roundups or major workplace raids under Trump, but nearly every week brings a contentious new arrest.
A Virginia mother was sent back to El Salvador in June after her 11 years in the United States unraveled because of a traffic stop. A Connecticut man with an American-born wife and children and no criminal record was deported to Guatemala last week. And an immigration activist in New York, Ravi Ragbir, was detained in January in a case that brought ICE a scathing rebuke from a federal judge.
“It ought not to be – and it has never before been – that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust,” said U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, reading her opinion in court before ordering ICE to release Ragbir.
“We are not that country,” she said.
Immigrants whose only crime was living in the country illegally were largely left alone during the latter years of the Obama administration. But that policy has been scrapped.
Those facing deportation who show up for periodic “check-ins” with ICE to appeal for more time in the United States can no longer be confident that good behavior will spare them from detention. Once-routine appointments now can end with the immigrants in handcuffs.
More broadly, the Trump administration has given street-level ICE officers and field directors greater latitude to determine whom they arrest and under what conditions, breaking with the more selective enforcement approach of President Barack Obama’s second term.
Trump officials have likened this to taking “the shackles off,” and they say morale at ICE is up because its officers have regained the authority to detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.
Officers are detaining suspects in courthouses more often, and ICE teams no longer shy from taking additional people into custody when they knock on doors to arrest a targeted person.
“What are we supposed to do?” said Matthew Albence, the top official in the agency’s immigration enforcement division, who described the administration’s goal as simply restoring the rule of law. If ICE fails to uphold its duties to enforce immigration laws, he added, “then the system has no integrity.”
In addition to arresting twice as many immigrants who have not been convicted of crimes, ICE also arrested 105,736 immigrants with criminal convictions, a slight increase. That figure includes people with serious or violent offenses as well as those with lesser convictions, such as driving without a license or entering the country illegally.
ICE’s arrest totals in Trump’s first year in office are still much lower than they were during Obama’s early tenure, which the agency says is partly because it is contending with far more resistance from state and local governments that oppose Trump’s policies. And the president’s repeated negative characterizations of some immigrant groups have created an atmosphere in which arrests that were once standard now erupt as political flash points.
Obama initially earned the moniker “deporter in chief” because his administration expelled hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including people with no criminal records. But when Republicans blocked his effort to create a path to citizenship for millions living in the country illegally, Obama curtailed ICE enforcement, especially for those without serious criminal violations. Those measures incensed Republicans – and eventually helped to propel Trump into office.
An estimated 11 million people are living in the United States without legal residency, and the new era of ICE enforcement has shattered the presumption that their social and economic integration into American life would protect them.
Because immigration records are generally secret, it is difficult to independently verify how federal agents decide to make arrests. Immigrant advocates and ICE often clash over immigration cases, and both sides frequently present incomplete versions of an immigrant’s case.
Last month, a college chemistry instructor in Kansas, Syed Ahmed Jamal, was taken into custody on his lawn while preparing to take his daughter to school. He arrived from Bangladesh 30 years ago and built a life in the United States. More than 57,000 people signed an online petition asking ICE to stop his deportation, describing him as a community leader and loving father.
An immigration judge placed a temporary stay Wednesday on ICE’s attempt to deport him, but the agency’s account of Jamal’s case is starkly different. ICE said he arrived in 1987 on a temporary visa. He was ordered to leave the United States in 2002, and he complied, but three months later, he returned – legally – and overstayed again. A judge ordered him to leave the country in 2011, but he did not. ICE said agents took Jamal into custody in 2012. He lost his appeal in 2013.
At first glance, Albence said, many of ICE’s arrests may seem like “sympathetic cases – individuals who are here, and who have been here a long time.”
“But the reason they’ve been here a long time is because they gamed the system,” he said.
Defenders of the tougher approach applaud ICE’s new resolve and say it is U.S. immigration courts – not ICE – that are determining who should be allowed to stay. And they reject the idea that the longer someone has lived in the country, the more the person deserves to be left alone.
“As someone who has practiced law for 20-plus years, I find strange the idea the longer you get away with a violation, the less stiff the punishment should be, and that your continued violation of the law is basis for the argument that you shouldn’t suffer the consequences of that violation,” said Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which backs Trump’s approach.
The furor that has followed recent ICE arrests reflects a deeper disagreement – not unlike the fight over young, undocumented “dreamers” – about the consequences that those in the country illegally should face.
Living in the United States without legal status is generally treated as a civil violation, not a criminal one. And many Americans, especially Democrats, do not view it as an offense worthy of arrest and deportation once someone has settled into American life.
But in the hyper-politicized atmosphere of the immigration debate, where the merits of these arrests are increasingly litigated in public, partisans now argue over each immigrant’s perceived worthiness to remain in the country, even when a full grasp of the facts is lacking.
When a 43-year-old Polish-born doctor in Michigan who came to the United States at age 5 was arrested last month, supporters rushed to his defense. ICE justified its decision by saying the doctor, who was a permanent legal resident, had had repeated encounters with local police and two 1992 misdemeanor convictions for destruction of property and receiving stolen items, crimes that under U.S. immigration law are considered evidence of “moral turpitude.”
Others who committed crimes long ago and satisfied their obligations to the American justice system have learned there is no statute of limitations on ICE’s ability to use the immigrants’ offenses as grounds to arrest and deport them.
When Ragbir, the New York immigration activist, was detained last month during a scheduled check-in with ICE, his supporters accused the agency of targeting him for retaliation.
But Ragbir is the type of person who is now a top priority for ICE. After becoming a lawful U.S. resident in 1994, he was convicted of mortgage and wire fraud in 2000.
Ragbir served two years in prison, then married a U.S. citizen in 2010. Immigration courts repeatedly spared him from deportation, but his most recent appeal was denied, and ICE took him into custody eight days before his residency was due to expire.
Ragbir was so stunned that he lost consciousness, court records show, and was taken to a hospital.
Former acting ICE director John Sandweg, who helped draft the 2014 memo that prioritized arrests based on the severity of immigrants’ criminal offenses, said the agency has resources to deport only about 200,000 cases a year from the interior of the United States.
“The problem is, when you remove all priorities, it’s like a fisherman who could just get his quota anywhere,” Sandweg said. “It diminishes the incentives on the agents to go get the bad criminals. Now their job is to fill the beds.”
Albence said the agency’s priority remains those who represent a threat to public safety or national security, just as it was under Obama. The difference now is that agents are also enforcing judges’ deportation orders against all immigrants who are subject to such orders, regardless of whether they have criminal records.
“There’s no list where we rank ‘This is illegal alien number 1 all the way down to 2.3 million,’ ” he said.
Albence said ICE prioritizes its caseload using government databases and law enforcement methods to track fugitives. But in the vast majority of cases, ICE takes custody of someone after state or local police have arrested the person.
This approach dovetailed with ICE’s enforcement emphasis on targeting serious criminals, and at first, the Obama administration and other Democrats embraced it. But activists protested that ICE was arresting people pulled over for driving infractions and other minor offenses at a time when Congress was debating whether to grant undocumented immigrants legal residency. Advocacy groups pushed cities and towns to become “sanctuary” cities that refused to cooperate with ICE.
ICE’s caseload far exceeds the capacity of its jails. In addition to the 41,500 immigrants in detention, according to the most recent data, the agency has a caseload of roughly 3 million deportation-eligible foreigners, equal to about 1 in 4 of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants nationwide.
More than 542,000 of those are considered fugitives, meaning they did not show up for their immigration hearings and were ordered deported, or they failed to leave the country after losing their cases. Nearly 2 in 3 were not considered a priority for deportation under Obama. They are now.
An additional 2.4 million undocumented immigrants are free pending hearings or appeals, or because the agency has not been able to deport them yet and the Supreme Court has ruled that such individuals cannot be jailed indefinitely. Nearly 1 million of this group have final deportation orders, including 178,000 convicted criminals.
They include the Michigan doctor and Ragbir, the New York activist.
“It’s true that all these people are deportable, but that doesn’t mean they should all have equal value,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a former policy adviser to Obama who helped shape the administration’s tiered enforcement approach.
“By crowding the courts with all kinds of people, you’re creating a resource problem,” Muñoz said.
“If you apply that logic to local police forces, you’re saying that every robber and rapist is the same as a jaywalker. And then you’re clogging your courts with jaywalkers.”