As immigrant families wait in dread, no sign of large-scale enforcement raids

Texas Tribune News

The downtown Houston skyline.
The downtown Houston skyline.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The nationwide immigration raids that President Donald Trump said would begin Sunday failed to materialize on the streets of major U.S. cities, even as his statement cast a cloud of fear that kept many families indoors. Immigration enforcement authorities said their plans to track down migrants with deportation orders would continue, but their actions over the weekend appeared more akin to routine work rather than the mass roundups the president promised.

Immigrants and advocates had been bracing for the arrests Trump last warned of Friday, saying he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries.” But law enforcement officials said they worried that the unusual public disclosure of the plan endangered officers and threatened their effectiveness.

Trump has vowed repeatedly to deport “millions” of people who are in the United States illegally, and the long-planned blitz aims to target families that entered the country recently and have received deportation orders. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has for years regularly arrested and removed immigrants whom a judge has deemed should be deported after court hearings.

In an interview with The Washington Post, ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence declined to confirm whether a widespread operation was underway Sunday.

“There’s not anything I’m going to say that would jeopardize my officers,” Albence said. “Operationally, we’ll never divulge details that would put our officers at any more risk than they already face in this toxic environment.”

Immigrant advocates said the threats have so far been just that, political grandstanding that serves to frighten and intimidate families despite no apparent departure from ICE’s routine work of enforcing U.S. law.

“Trump can declare victory — he already scared the hell out of people,” said Bill Hing, a University of San Francisco law professor and director of the university’s immigration and deportation defense clinic. “There has been so much drama all over the country.”

In New York, Houston, Los Angeles and several other cities that are to be targeted under the Trump administration’s “family op,” community organizers and lawyers responded to Trump’s declarations with Know Your Rights seminars, handing out informational fliers, as well as affidavits to declare emergency guardianship for children should they be separated from their families. Churches and other houses of worship have offered their buildings as sanctuaries, and activists have volunteered to stand watch.

But there were few signs that ICE was out in force, with a spattering of reports of ICE activity.

“All quiet in Houston,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said Sunday. “I expect ICE will conduct routine removal operations during the week.”

Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot terminated ICE’s access to Chicago Police Department databases Friday and increased the city’s Legal Protection Fund by $250,000 to support legal aid to immigrants. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva took to television to say “unequivocally” that his department would not cooperate with ICE, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms urged undocumented immigrations to stay in their homes Sunday.

In Atlanta, Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director for the nonprofit Project South, was standing by with other attorneys, wearing their green legal-observer hats, ready to respond to any ICE arrests. Activists had also taken to the streets of predominantly immigrant neighborhoods before dawn Sunday to act as “ICE chasers” in the case of raids.

Rachel Gumpert, the national press secretary for Unite Here, a union that represents hospitality workers, said Sunday that three major hotel chains had agreed to refuse ICE requests to detain immigrants at their locations.

“We began scrambling on Wednesday around this. On Thursday, Marriott had committed,” Gumpert said. Hilton and Hyatt hotels followed.

New York City officials said Saturday night that ICE agents were spotted conducting “enforcement operations” in two neighborhoods but that no arrests were made after residents declined to answer their doors.

It was unclear whether the agents were acting as part of the larger operation to take families into custody. An ICE official in New York declined to confirm the reports.

Some administration officials have privately voiced frustration with the president for his decision to publicly announce ICE’s plans in advance, blowing the cover off the raids. Like most law enforcement agencies, ICE officials treat their actions as closely guarded secrets, and they rely on the element of surprise to make arrests. Telegraphing planned roundups, while potentially a deterrent to migrants thinking about coming to the United States, also allows those who might be targeted to flee or hide.

John Sandweg, who served as ICE acting director under President Barack Obama, said he was “struggling to find any legitimate reason to discuss operations in advance, as they have.”

“It puts officers in danger, and candidly, if you want to score PR benefits, you could just do the operation quietly and then talk about it,” he said, noting that he thinks ICE likely will wait for attention to die down before going forward with the plan. “ICE routinely conducts these operations, and they routinely conducted them during the Obama administration.”

The attention and fear generated by the president’s statements had created an unrealistic expectation of the agency’s abilities to find and deport a large number of people, Sandweg added.

“The thing is — having been involved in dozens of these operations — this was never going to be more than 2,000 to 5,000 targets,” he said. “And if you look at Central American migration, there are 300,000 to 500,000 people who have arrived in the past couple years alone. … The fear and the hysteria generated far exceed the actual impact this operation would have.”

The Justice Department launched an effort this spring to fast-track the cases of migrant families that have crossed the border since 2017, and the move has yielded thousands of removal orders, many of them delivered in absentia.

The American Civil Liberties Union and three other legal aid groups filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the government cannot deport families without sufficient due process, including allowing would-be deportees to appear before an immigration judge. Attorneys say notices of court appearances from ICE sometimes fail to identify the date of the hearing; other mail correspondence is sent to incorrect addresses.

But Albence said the criticism of ICE is overblown, noting that his agency is enforcing court orders. Willfully violating a removal order is a crime.

“No other law enforcement agency in the country is asked to ignore the lawful orders of a judge,” he said. “We are merely executing the orders as we are sworn to do.”

Albence said the remarks by some critics — including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who likened immigration detention facilities to concentration camps — “inflames the emotions of individuals who would do us harm.”

The ICE director referred to an attack Saturday in Tacoma, Washington, where a man who had previously protested at a detention center there returned with a rifle and incendiary devices.

“He set fire to a car, and he tried to set fire to propane tanks,” Albence said, noting that the man could have killed ICE personnel and contractors at the location, as well as the detainees in its custody.

Critics, including Democratic lawmakers, Christian groups and the ACLU, have warned that raids targeting families would invariably result in the separation of children from their parents because so many families with undocumented members also have children who are U.S. citizens.

Albence acknowledged that the targeted enforcement likely would lead to the separation of children and parents, but he defended such actions as similar to other law enforcement arrests of criminals, and the fact that children do not accompany their convicted parents to prison.

“When we make criminal arrests, we’re separating families every day,” he said. “When individuals are taken into custody, the child does not go into custody with them.”

U.S. authorities have said part of the influx of Central American families in recent months is due to them taking advantage of loopholes in U.S. law that require children to be released from custody shortly after they are apprehended at the border. Trump administration officials have said people are bringing children because they know it means an easier path to release, and they also have assailed migrants for making sham asylum claims to initiate what can be lengthy court processes.

Albence said that of the 2,100 families who were notified of their removal orders by the courts, just 65 accepted the agency’s invitation to leave the United States voluntarily. “We gave them the opportunity to come report to ICE’s offices,” he said. “We could have arranged orderly travel, so they could be released for a period of time to arrange their affairs and turn themselves in.”

Albence insisted Sunday that the operation — whether or not it was underway — is under ICE direction and was not being guided by the White House.