U.S. immigration agents who conducted a recent operation in the Austin area arrested a higher percentage of people here with no previous criminal convictions compared with other regions of the country and swept up more people found guilty of drunken driving than any other offense, federal documents obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV show.
The information, compiled by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and presented late last week to several U.S. congressional officials, provides the most comprehensive data available about the national operation that sparked a furor in Austin, where 51 people were arrested.
It also intensified questions Wednesday about whom federal agents targeted as part of Operation Cross Check, which ICE officials have said was aimed at the most dangerous, violent criminals.
The newly obtained records indicate a somewhat different outcome than federal officials had publicly announced, prompting condemnation from some officials and immigration advocates.
“Statistics, mere numbers don’t convey the depth of the sad story of lives interrupted,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. “An indiscriminate deportation policy that does not target those that pose a real threat makes our communities less safe, divides families, and will hurt our economy.”
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Austin’s District 4, said the ICE operation in Austin tore hard-working families apart.
“ICE officials attempt to justify themselves by holding up the criminal records of a few people,” he said.
Documents show that of the 51 people arrested by federal immigration agents, 23 were previously identified by ICE as having criminal convictions. Yet 28 of them were deemed “noncriminals” by the immigration agency — meaning they didn’t have previous criminal convictions but were suspected of being in the country illegally.
The number of noncriminal people arrested during the operation number stands in sharp contrast to other regions where the operation took place.
According to the data, in the Austin region — which includes the cities of San Antonio, Del Rio, Laredo and Waco — 55 percent of those arrested were “noncriminal,” compared with 34 percent in Atlanta, 30 percent in Chicago, 6 percent in Los Angeles and 5 percent in New York.
It was unclear why the Austin area had more noncriminal arrests, but federal officials said they suspect it could be the result of “collateral apprehensions” — the arrest of a person because they might have been with a wanted individual at the time.
“During targeted enforcement operations, ICE officers frequently encounter additional suspects who may be in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws,” ICE said in a recent statement. “Those persons will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and when appropriate, arrested by ICE.”
ICE officials have declined to identify the 51 people detained as part of the operation during a four-day period during the second week of February, making it difficult to know why the immigrants were arrested and their previous criminal histories, if any.
A large number of the 51 people are thought to be from Austin, federal officials said.
The Statesman has been attempting to learn their names through other means, including family members and limited federal court records.
The operation in Austin came to light after U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who recently condemned new Homeland Security Department directives revealed Tuesday that expand immigration enforcement across the country, confirmed on Feb. 10 rumors that immigration officials were carrying out targeted arrests in the Austin-San Antonio area.
Soon after the operation became public, ICE officials highlighted the arrests of a citizen of El Salvador who had pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a child and of a Mexican citizen convicted of repeat domestic violence offenses.
According to the data, of the 23 people with criminal convictions, nine were convicted of drunken driving, two for assault and two for sexual offenses involving children. But the data include several individuals who had been convicted of marijuana possession, obstructing the police and drug trafficking.
The operation struck fear in Austin, prompting protests and vocal responses by some City Council members.
Mayor Steve Adler sent an open letter to citizens of Austin, saying the city is a welcome, inclusive community.
“One consequence of this is the fear and panic among many of our neighbors who do not pose threats to our community,” Adler wrote. “Some family members are disappearing with their whereabouts unknown. Some parents, fearful of apprehension, aren’t sure of what will happen to their U.S.-born citizen children, not to mention the home they’ve owned for years and into which they’ve placed all their family savings.”
He added that Austin police haven’t had any role in the operation.
“The numbers of how many have been detained show that immigration (ICE) is lying, that the administration is lying in regard to the people who are being deported,” said Alejandro Caceres, an immigration organizer with the group Grassroots Leadership. “For us it doesn’t matter who was deported, for us all deportations and detentions were unjust.”