[Update: This story was updated at 8 a.m.]
When Angela Fernandez offered to hold a “know your rights” community workshop at her immigration coalition last week, many immigrant families were too scared to attend.
Here in Washington Heights, where nearly half the neighborhood's 170,000 residents are foreign born, word spread quickly that the Trump administration had begun one of its first widespread immigration enforcement actions.
“And I was told that the parents are so scared that they only feel comfortable meeting in a school,” says Ms. Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a nonprofit that helps provide legal services to immigrants.
In New York and other cities over the weekend, many immigrants stayed away from local restaurants, refrained from going to church, and even skipped out on work after United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) swept in more than 680 people in nearly a dozen states from California to Florida.
On one hand, President Trump’s rhetoric, along with his executive orders, point to an administration that could significantly step up actions against undocumented immigrants.
Yet the Obama administration’s nationwide “Cross Check” operations apprehended more than 2,000 “convicted criminal aliens who pose the greatest risk to our public safety” in a similar five-day sweep in 2015, according to a Trump administration fact sheet released on Monday. They also rounded up 1,660 individuals, including 1,570 convicted criminals, in 2013. And in both 2012 and 2011, ICE enforcement actions resulted in some 3,000 arrests each time.
By including this context in its fact sheets, and emphasizing that 75 percent of the immigrants detained last week had some kind of criminal conviction, the Trump administration emphasized continuity. After all, President Obama also prioritized the most dangerous undocumented criminals.
“These operations targeted public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges,” said Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in a statement on Monday.
Expanded definition of 'criminal'
Still, the enforcement actions created alarm in many communities – even a sense of panic as word spread that ICE agents were showing up at homes and making targeted arrests.
In one sense, the unease was disproportionate to the size of the operation. But many legal experts and immigration advocates note that Mr. Trump’s executive orders on immigration – which call for the hiring of 10,000 additional immigration officers – have fundamentally changed the agency’s previous priorities. That sets the stage for what could be a much wider-ranging routine of targeting undocumented immigrants for arrest.
“Each presidential administration can decide who is a priority for deportation, of course,” says Christina Fialho, executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. Under Mr. Obama, pregnant mothers, the elderly, and those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes were not normally targeted by agents, she notes.
“But President Trump’s executive orders have taken a very expansive view of the term ‘criminal,’ applying it in ways not seen seen before,” she says.
Trump’s immigration order focuses not just those convicted of crimes, but anyone charged with an offense. Moreover, Trump’s immigration order allows agents to arrest anyone seen to pose a risk to either public safety or national security, “in the judgment of an immigration officer.”
“What we know is that the president’s executive order grants broader discretion to immigration agents to place aliens into removal proceedings,” says Fernandez. To her, that is “unconscionable.”
The case of an Arizona mom
One concern among immigrants and advocates is that the administration could be moving away from considering the family situations of those here illegally, and who have not been convicted or accused of serious crimes.
Last week, an undocumented mother of two US-born children, Guadalupe García de Rayos, checked in with the ICE office in Phoenix – a routine she had followed every year, and sometimes twice a year, for eight years.
This time, however, without warning she was deported to Mexico, even though she hadn’t committed a violent crime and hadn't lived in her native country since she was 14.
Trump’s immigration order now directs agents to deport anyone who has engaged in “fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency” – which includes anyone who has used a false Social Security number to obtain a job, which Ms. García de Rayos and many undocumented immigrants have done.
Obama’s executive order for immigrants who arrived in the US as children, so-called DREAMers, allowed them to live and work openly. While the policy remains in place, and both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have said supportive things about the future of these young people, a DREAMer in Seattle was reportedly picked up in a raid Friday. Despite the fact that he has a work permit, he has a deportation hearing scheduled Friday.
In New York, where 41 people were arrested, including a gang member and two people convicted of sexually assaulting children, according to the ICE fact sheet, false rumors flew as well. Social media posts falsely reported checkpoints at subway stops and intersections in high immigrant populations in Queens – rumors condemned by federal officials as even advocacy groups urged for calm.
Yet the assumption among immigration advocates like Ms. Fialho is that the White House is merely gearing up. “For the Department of Homeland Security to execute Trump’s executive orders, we’re more likely than not to see a big expansion in the number of immigration detentions moving forward.”