Originally Published in The New York Times
Miriam Jordan - September 12, 2020
“Hands up! Turn around,” ordered one of the men, who shackled her and escorted her to a van.
Six agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in three unmarked vehicles had been deployed to arrest her. Within 24 hours, the 43-year-old single mother of four U.S.-born children had been deported to Mexico. She had lived without legal permission in the United States for 27 years.
Ms. Flores was seized during a new nationwide enforcement operation announced this month, the first large-scale arrests and deportations in the interior of the country since the coronavirus pandemic halted field operations for several months. Since mid-July, immigration agents have taken more than 2,000 people into custody from their homes, workplaces and other sites, including a post office, often after staking them out for days.
In Los Angeles, agents made 300 arrests. More than a thousand others were rounded up in New York, Atlanta and Phoenix, as well as in cities in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Utah and Wyoming.
President Trump has made curbing immigration a cornerstone of his agenda. He has blocked most asylum seekers and refugees, built 300 miles of border wall and invoked the health crisis to seal the border to nonessential travelers.
During the Republican National Convention, he reiterated his pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration, and his re-election campaign has emphasized the restrictive immigration agenda that was central to his platform in 2016. A recent television ad airing in battleground states said that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s support for offering a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants unlawfully in the country would undermine Americans by creating more competition for jobs and more beneficiaries of welfare programs.
The United States is home to about 10.5 million undocumented immigrants. Three out of four adults said they favored a pathway to legal status for them, according to a survey in June by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Thirty-two percent of Trump supporters said immigrants strengthen society, up from 19 percent in 2016, according to a Pew survey of voters released on Thursday. While the issue of immigration still appeals to Mr. Trump’s base, concerns about the economy and the coronavirus pandemic animate more voters, strategists say.
The wide-ranging immigration operation, which had been underway for many weeks before it was publicly announced, was touted by officials as a mission designed to capture hardened criminals who were at large.
“The aliens targeted during this operation preyed on men, women and children in our communities, committing serious crimes and, at times, repeatedly hurting their victims,” said Tony Pham, the new interim director of ICE.
“Through our targeted enforcement efforts, we are eliminating the threat posed by these criminals, many of whom are repeat offenders,” he said.
About 85 percent of those arrested either had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, according to the agency. Fourteen people had been convicted of homicide, and 12 faced murder charges. Assault, domestic violence and “family offenses” comprised the bulk of convictions or pending charges, it said.
But analysis of the totality of the government’s own data shows that the administration is arresting large numbers of undocumented immigrants whose crimes are minor, or who have not committed any crime at all. These immigrants are easier to locate and remove precisely because they are not trying to evade law enforcement, even if they have outstanding deportation orders.
Ms. Flores has no criminal record but had lost an appeal to stay in the country after she was ordered deported more than a decade ago. Like millions of undocumented immigrants who are quietly living and working in the country, she had managed to avoid arrest, working in Northern California and seeing her children through school.
“My mom has always been a hardworking lady who just minds her business and takes care of my brothers and sister,” said her oldest child, Alex Salinas, 26, who lives in Healdsburg, Calif., with his three siblings. “I am shocked that this happened the way it did.”
In the 2019 fiscal year, federal agents arrested more than 143,000 people in the interior. The most common convictions or criminal charges pending against them were for driving under the influence (74,000), followed by drug offenses (67,000). Only 1,900 had been charged or convicted of homicide.
Under the Trump administration, there has been a steady rise in immigrants detained without a serious record, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which has compiled data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
TRAC found that a jump in the number of detained immigrants in 2019 was a direct result of arrests of people with no criminal records.
“ICE makes it sound like they are snatching wanted felons off the streets when it conducts these operations,” said Austin C. Kocher, a geographer at Syracuse University who analyzes immigration enforcement data.
“We don’t get a full picture,” he said. “They downplay the large numbers of people detained and deported who committed minor offenses, usually a long time ago, or who had no crime on record.”
Of the 50,000 people in immigrant detention facilities on the last day of April 2019, nearly two-thirds had no criminal record, up from 40 percent four years earlier, under the administration of President Barack Obama, according to TRAC. Among detainees who had committed crimes, a higher percentage had been convicted of infractions such as driving without a license or immigration violations; a lower proportion of detained immigrants had committed violent crimes than before.
The most recent deportation data available, for the first five months of the 2020 fiscal year, shows that 52 percent of those removed from the country had no criminal record, according to TRAC, up from about 40 percent in each of the previous three fiscal years.