As reports of immigrant arrests in Texas and around the country mounted over the weekend, questions about their context got markedly different explanations from federal officials and immigrant rights activists.
Trump supporters cheered the activity as a just enforcement of law; immigrant advocates worried that it was early evidence of something more menacing at work.
At issue is whether, at the start of a Trump administration that rose to power on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, the arrests herald a new age of raids or whether the actions over the weekend were a routine activity for an agency that has long handcuffed immigrants.
“These are existing, established fugitive operations teams,” ICE said, targeting “criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation’s immigration laws.”
“ICE does not conduct sweeps, checkpoints or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” the statement said.
Such reports, the statement said, “are dangerous and irresponsible.”
“These reports create panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger,” the statement said. “Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”
Denise Gilman, who runs the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas, said there had definitely been an increase in ICE activity, based on reports from her contacts among immigrants and the people who represent them.
“The answer is clearly yes, there’s a much bigger presence than the one that’s been acknowledged by ICE,” she said.
The agency is not detaining huge numbers of people in Austin, Gilman said, “but they’re making their presence known, driving around immigrant neighborhoods.”
She said the increase in arrests Thursday through Sunday is not a routine event.
“It seems to me it’s intended to send a message that this is a crackdown, this is a new administration, and there will be more enforcement actions in immigrant neighborhoods,” she said.
Even Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly seemed to draw a link between the new White House and agency priorities.
“President Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of DHS in protecting the nation and directed our department to focus on removing illegal aliens who have violated our immigration laws,” Kelly said.
People detained in Austin typically are taken to the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall, southwest of San Antonio.
Some of the people arrested will face criminal prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office for illegal re-entry after deportation, ICE officials said. Those not being criminally prosecuted “will be processed for removal from the United States,” federal officials said.
Asked how ICE determines whom to arrest, Gilman said: “There’s no list of the 12 million people who are here undocumented. Those lists would be generated by the local San Antonio field office of ICE, looking at records of prior deportations and criminal records.”
“They’re secretive about who’s being targeted. That is probably a function of ICE saying they’re targeting only specific individuals with criminal histories and prior deportation orders. But other people are getting picked up, and that’s where you see the reluctance of the agency” to explain exactly who is being arrested, she said.
The former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Dallas Morning News that a sweeping executive order signed by Trump that allows any unauthorized immigrant to be deported for even being suspected of a minor crime will have greater impact than Trump’s other immigration policies.
Sarah Saldaña, who headed the agency as an appointee of then-President Barack Obama, told the newspaper that immigration courts are already overburdened and that staffing ICE to carry out Trump’s executive order will cost more than Congress was willing to spend during her tenure.
The Obama administration, for its part, faced criticism from all sides on immigration issues. Obama opened a way for Dreamers, or young immigrants, to remain in this country. Trump has sent mixed signals about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, calling for it to be rescinded as a candidate but backpedaling as president.
Last year, Obama’s ICE deported 240,255 people — down from a high of 409,849 in 2012.