Minutes after Daniela Vargas spoke to the press in Jackson, Miss., on Wednedsay, the car in which she was riding slowed down and pulled over. The uniformed men who came to the door reportedly said, “You know who we are, and why we are here.”
Ms. Vargas, a 20-something who came to the United States from Argentina as a 7-year-old, had last month seen immigration agents detain the rest of her family. As it turns out, she had been late in sending in a $495 renewal fee for the Obama-era program that allows some young undocumented immigrants like her to stay in the country – prompting her detention Wednesday.
Her detention provides a poignant glimpse into what immigration experts call a more personal, even vindictive, style of enforcement intended to assert muscular new federal authority over immigrant communities.
For its part, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called the detention of Vargas routine, and says its tactics haven’t changed markedly under President Trump. But Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) of Mississippi called the treatment of Vargas, a musician and aspiring teacher, “anything but” routine.
To be sure, Mr. Trump has vowed to reshape America’s position toward illegal immigration. But the incidents like the one in Mississippi this week might be happening less because of a grand Trump plan, and more as a result of what happens when, as Press Secretary Sean Spicer put it, America “takes the shackles off” federal agents.
The nation’s 6,500 ICE special agents fought President Obama for eight years and even sued him over the program that allowed Vargas to stay in the country legally, known as DACA.
They “have long chafed under the idea that they can’t do the job they think they’re supposed to do,” says Rick Su, an immigration expert at the University at Buffalo School of Law in New York. “And now Trump has told them, ‘Do whatever job you want to do. We’re not here to question your judgment.’ ”
The result so far has been a building parade of human drama and whip-tails of policy-in-action, testing America’s welcome stance toward immigrants and visitors.
“What we’re seeing is something that on one hand is more broad and at the same time, at least anecdotally, more selective – in a different way – in terms of the potential targeting of people that seem to be activists,” says Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. “That is being denied officially, but certainly the impression is growing that there has been a kind of unshackling [of deportation agents]. Whether it’s by central directive or local fiat, there is more targeting going on.”
A markedly different approach
The Vargas arrest came amid growing concerns among the 750,000 young people who came out of the shadows to apply for DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the US as children to apply for renewable two-year deportation deferrals.
Ironically, new immigration enforcement memos from the Department of Homeland Security say that DACA will remain in force. But in finding a loophole to detain Vargas, immigration agents highlighted their broad new authority under those memos.
The Obama administration carried out large immigration raids, too – to the point where some immigrant groups derisively called Mr. Obama the “deporter-in-chief.” Yet the Obama administration laid out a careful guidelines that prioritized the removal of criminals while making humanitarian exceptions for family situations and an immigrant’s “status as a victim.”
Among the beneficiaries of Obama’s approach was Jesus Moroyoqui, a landscaper and father of three US-born children in Tucson, Ariz. He has lived here for 20 years and has been deported to Mexico previously, but the last time he landed in immigration detention after a traffic stop, he was allowed to stay.
Immigration enforcement these days, however, feels “more aggressive,” leaving him anxious, he tells the Monitor.
Indeed, there are indications that immigration agents are going to new lengths to pick off “low-hanging fruit,” as Professor Su says.
Last month, Daniel Ramirez Medina, a DACA recipient, was detained in Seattle after ICE agents showed up at his house to detain his father, who is here illegally. US authorities claimed that Mr. Medina had admitted to being a gang member. His lawyers dispute that, and have now sued the federal government, claiming that they have no constitutional right to detain the young man.
Also last month, ICE agents acted with unusual boldness when they entered a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, to detain a transgender woman trying to get a restraining order against an abuser. While the woman had a criminal record and had been deported before, the decision by agents to enter a courthouse was “unacceptable,” El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar told reporters.
DACA in limbo
In this atmosphere, DACA recipients feel in limbo, both with promises of protection – with Trump calling them “incredible kids” who he wants to treat with “great heart” – but also doubts about the strength of such promises.
“Compared to other immigration priorities that Trump has set in place, DACA exists in this strange realm,” says Su.
Picking up activists and others who seem to thumb their nose at authorities may be particularly attractive, he says. In that light, Vargas’s “brazenness” turned the situation into “a personal sort of power dynamic.”
ICE did not return emailed inquiries about the arrest. In a statement, an ICE spokesman confirmed that immigration officials took Vargas, “an unlawfully present Argentinian citizen,” into custody Wednesday “during a targeted immigration enforcement action” after the agency verified that her DACA status had lapsed.
Immigration agents are not all supportive of ramped-up enforcement. The fact-checking site Politifact found Trump’s assertion that he was “unanimously endorsed” by border agents “mostly false.” But perhaps no other corner of the federal bureaucracy fought Obama as furiously, with both unions regularly condemning his moves to shape immigration policy.
Calling Trump’s moves “swift and decisive,” ICE union head Chris Crane wrote in a statement last month that the president’s policies will “make America safer and more prosperous.” Additionally, he said, morale among agents has “increased exponentially.”
Lining up for a piece of paper
Immigrant groups have noticed. In Tucson on Thursday night, undocumented immigrants queued up to receive notarized legal forms that would ensure access to a lawyer if they’re detained.
Blanca Sanchez, a Mexico native who has lived in the US without legal status for about 15 years, says carrying the form with her at all times will help her feel more secure.
“There have always been raids, but things seem to be getting tougher,” she says.
As they filed out of the meeting room, youngsters, women, and men clutched the legal forms and yellow posters that said: “Do not enter without a lawful search warrant.”
Vargas, for her part, wonders why – after successfully applying for a work permit in 2012 and 2014 under DACA – her honest attempts to renew her status were turned on her at the very moment she spoke up.
“I don’t understand why they don’t want me,” she said in comments to the Huffington Post. “I’m doing the best I can. I mean, I can’t help that I was brought here [and that] I don’t know anything else besides being here. I didn’t realize that until I was in a holding cell last night for 5 hours.”
She is set to be deported without a hearing, according to reports.