By Maria Sacchetti
Immigration arrests rose 32.6 percent in the first weeks of the Trump administration, with newly empowered federal agents intensifying their pursuit of not just undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but also thousands of illegal immigrants who have been otherwise law-abiding.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 21,362 immigrants, mostly convicted criminals, from January through mid-March, compared to 16,104 during the same period last year, according to statistics requested by The Washington Post.
Arrests of immigrants with no criminal records more than doubled to 5,441, the clearest sign yet that President Trump has ditched his predecessor’s protective stance toward most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Advocates for immigrants say the unbridled enforcement has led to a sharp drop in reports from Latinos of sexual assaults and other crimes in Houston and Los Angeles, and terrified immigrant communities across the United States. A prosecutor said the presence of immigration agents in state and local courthouses, which advocates say has increased under the Trump administration, makes it harder to prosecute crime.
“My sense is that ICE is emboldened in a way that I have never seen,” Dan Satterberg, the top prosecutor in Washington state’s King County, which includes Seattle, said Thursday. “The federal government, in really just a couple of months, has undone decades of work that we have done to build this trust.”
A spokeswoman for ICE said her agency “remains sensitive” to victims and witnesses and helps them obtain visas or stays of deportation in some cases. But she said anyone in the United States illegally could be deported.
ICE “focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement. “However, as [Homeland Security] Secretary [John F.] Kelly has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Nearly three-quarters of the immigrants arrested from Jan. 20 to March 13 had criminal convictions, an increase of 15 percent over the same period last year.
But the biggest spike is the arrest of immigrants with no criminal records, with immigration field offices in New York, Boston and other places doubling or tripling their numbers from last year.
ICE’s Atlanta office arrested the most immigrants who had never committed any crimes, with nearly 700 arrests, up from 137 the prior year. Philadelphia had the biggest percentage increase, with 356 noncriminal arrests, more than six times as many as the year before.
The ICE field offices with the largest total number of arrests — more than 2,000 each — were in Dallas, which covers north Texas and Oklahoma; Atlanta, which includes Georgia and the Carolinas; and Houston, which spans Southeast Texas.
Immigration detainers — voluntary requests from ICE to law enforcement agencies to hold those arrested beyond their normal release so that agents can take them into custody and deport them — also rose, to 22,161. That was a 75 percent jump from the year before. But many were issued in areas that do not necessarily comply with ICE requests.
Overall, deportations are down by 1.2 percent, to 54,741 in January, February and March, compared to the same period last year. Elzea said it can take time to remove someone from the United States, but the number of noncriminals deported is higher this year, while the number of criminals who were deported fell. Despite his pledge to send criminals packing, Trump has struggled to get countries such as China to take their citizens back.
Some say criticism of Trump’s policies seems politically charged, noting that President Barack Obama deported thousands of immigrants without criminal records. And arrests this year are lower than Obama’s first weeks in 2014, when agents arrested 29,238 immigrants, including 7,483 noncriminal ones.
The mayor of Miami-Dade County said in a recent interview that he has fielded more protests over the city’s immigration policies this year than under Obama.
“It’s all got to do with the president,” said Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, a Republican who said he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. “Most of it has to do with politics. It’s sad.”
But Anabel Barron, an immigrant activist in Ohio, said she is facing deportation even though she is a domestic-violence victim who applied for a visa. She said ICE officials have affixed an electronic-tracking device to her ankle.
“I’m scared to go back to Mexico,” she said. “I’m losing hope.”
Others fear ICE is arresting immigrants in retaliation for asserting their rights, such as two dairy worker advocates in Vermont, who have since been released on bond, and a community activist in New York, who is detained.
“I honestly believe that ICE wants to send a message that this is what happens when you speak out,” said Boston immigration lawyer Matt Cameron, who represents the Vermont activists.
ICE said the three immigrants were targeted because they violated immigration laws. The New York man illegally re-entered the United States after he was deported, Elzea said. “ICE does not target individuals based on political beliefs or activism,” she said.
Advocates for immigrants say they also criticized Obama as the “deporter in chief” and waged a national campaign to create sanctuary cities to shield immigrants from deportation.
But they said Obama sought to avoid deporting longtime immigrants with roots in their communities and American-born children. He also lobbied Congress to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and granted work permits to more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
And in a November 2014 memo, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson restricted immigration arrests mainly to criminals and those who recently crossed the U.S. border, and immigration arrests plunged.
Since the election, Trump and his officials have sent conflicting signals on how much he would intensify immigration enforcement.
On the campaign trail, Trump said anyone in the United States illegally could be deported. After the election, however, he told “60 Minutes” he would focus on criminals and said he would decide later what to do with undocumented immigrants who are “terrific people.”
In January, he issued executive orders that made all undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation. In February, Trump’s press secretary said the “shackles” were off immigration and border agents, whose unions backed Trump in the election.
“I think the instruction is, ‘Go about your business in terms of apprehending immigrants,” said Joanne Lin, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU. “It’s wherever they can find them.”