President Donald Trump has promised the only immigrants being deported now that he’s in office are “bad hombres”: convicted criminals, threats to American safety and the national interest.
News reports from across the country are making clear that’s not true.
One day, it’s 22-year-old Daniela Vargas in Jackson, Mississippi, who once was protected from deportation by President Barack Obama’s deferred action program and now could be deported without trial. The next, it’s Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, the father of four US-born children, pulled over and arrested while driving his youngest daughters to school — while his 13-year-old daughter taped the whole thing on her phone.
It’s not that people like Vargas, Avelica-Gonzalez, and other longtime US residents who are being tracked down by ICE agents and provoking local firestorms are “good immigrants” rather than bad ones. It’s that the “good immigrant”/“bad immigrant” distinction has never been quite as clear as people may like to believe.
Communities are shocked and outraged when longtime residents with US-born children and deep community roots are deported. But ICE is pointing to the letter of its policies — which dictate that any unauthorized immigrant is vulnerable to deportation, and set further priorities into which all of these cases (and most unauthorized immigrants) fall.
The pleas that immigrants who might seem “bad” on paper are actually “good” are falling on deaf ears. And the arrests of longtime residents have a ripple effect — sending a message to communities as a whole that nothing they do can protect them.
The executive orders signed by Trump give individual agents enormous discretion to decide which unauthorized immigrants to go after for deportation, and it certainly appears that those decisions are being made by agents on the ground. But some decisions are being made consistently.
Often, ICE is arresting and deporting people they could have gone after under President Obama — but, for whatever reason, did not. Often, they’re detaining people simply because they’re already known to ICE agents — the lowest-hanging fruit. And often, they’re making decisions that push the boundaries of one of the few Obama-era immigration directives still standing, which tries to protect immigrants’ ability to take their children to school or go to church without fear of deportation.
This doesn’t mean that immigrants who don’t fit any of these categories are safe. Indeed, part of the point of these arrests is that safety is not a thing that unauthorized immigrants should feel. But when ICE agents have the power to decide who’s deported and who isn’t, the most important question becomes what decisions are being made.
ICE is arresting people they could have prioritized under Obama — but, for whatever reason, didn’t
President Obama never called immigrants “bad hombres,” but his administration justified immigration enforcement the same way Trump is doing now: They were going after immigrants with criminal convictions or who had already been ordered deported, not hardworking people who hadn’t done anything wrong.
Obama often said he was deporting “felons, not families.” But in practice, the line is never that clear — many people with criminal records (or prior deportation orders) still contribute to their communities.
Under Trump, whole communities are being forced to recognize that messiness, as people who could have been deported under the policies that guided Obama’s first term, but weren’t, are being rounded up.
Roman Zaragoza-Sanchez of Sandy, Oregon, was arrested by ICE agents on Valentine’s Day, on the way to his job at a plant nursery. (He’s currently in immigration detention.) The arrest happened so suddenly that he left his car on the side of the road with the lights on; his wife had to have a neighbor hire a tow truck to pick it up. Zaragoza-Sanchez has been living in the US since 2001, and has five US-born children (the youngest of whom is 6 years old).
He doesn’t have a criminal record. But according to his lawyer, he was ordered deported in 1994 (when he was in the US as a migrant worker). That theoretically could have qualified him as a deportation “priority” under the Obama administration — he simply wasn’t. In 2008, he was arrested but released by ICE agents after they determined he wasn’t the man they were looking for.
Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco of West Frankfort, Illinois, was arrested by ICE agents near his home. Carlos, as he’s known to the people of West Frankfort (a community profiled in the New York Times this week), manages the Mexican restaurant La Fiesta; neighbors know him as a stalwart supporter of law enforcement (the sort of man who brings meals for firefighters to the site of a fire) and a philanthropist who once raised hundreds of dollars to pay for a local child’s hearing aid.
But Hernandez, who’s been in the US since the “late 1990s” (according to neighbors), has two drunk driving convictions on his record from 2007 — making him a convicted criminal who could have been targeted during the first six years of the Obama administration. He wasn’t — but within the first six weeks of the Trump era, his status as a “convicted criminal” put him in ICE’s crosshairs. Hernandez has been released on bail while his deportation case is pending.
Obviously, saying that someone could have been deported under Obama only goes so far — for whatever reason, they weren’t. But going after someone like Hernandez, who has a criminal record, makes it easier for ICE to offer statistics showing it really is rounding up “criminal immigrants” as Trump promised to do before taking office.
It may also be a simple matter of availability. Immigrants who have criminal records or deportation orders are already known to federal agents; their names are in DHS databases. ICE may simply be going after the people it can already track down.
ICE is scooping up anyone who comes across its path
Deciding who to deport is really a question of resource allocation. The Obama administration spent a lot of time trying to encourage agents (with mixed results) to spend their time tracking down serious criminals, even if that took longer — and ultimately meant deporting fewer people — than just detaining every unauthorized immigrant they found. Now that Trump has “taken the handcuffs off” ICE agents, it’s not surprising that they’re scooping up the immigrants they can already find — or even the ones coming to them:
Jose Escobar of Houston, Texas, was arrested February 22 when he went to an ICE office for a check-in with agents. ICE detained Escobar, the 31-year-old father of two US-born children, in 2012. But when local media brought attention to his case, the government released him — and gave him protection from deportation and a work permit.
As part of that arrangement, Escobar had to meet with ICE agents annually; when he went in to do so in 2017, he was stripped of protections and arrested. Escobar was deported to El Salvador on March 2 — a country he hadn’t seen since he left for the US in 2001, at the age of 15.
Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos of Phoenix, Arizona, was detained when she went in for her annual ICE check-in on February 8, and deported to Mexico the next morning. Garcia de Rayos had also received a reprieve from deportation in 2013, though she had both a criminal conviction (for using a fake Social Security number to work) and a previous deportation order. She’d lived in the US for more than 20 years, since she was 14. Her husband and two US-born children are still living in Phoenix, but their mother is gone.
Daniela Vargas of Jackson, Mississippi, was arrested when ICE raided her home in early February. But while her father and brother were taken by ICE agents, Vargas, a 22-year-old who hoped to go back to school and become a math teacher, was initially released. It may have been because Vargas fits the criteria for protection from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Removals program — though she’d lost her protection last fall when she couldn’t pay the renewal fees.
After she spoke out at a March 1 press conference about her father’s and brother’s arrests, however, the car she was riding in was pulled over and ICE agents arrested Vargas again — and then slotted her to be deported without a hearing. Since Vargas came to the US from Argentina (at the age of 7) under a program that allowed people to come for 90 days without visas, then overstayed, she’s eligible for immediate deportation.
The circumstances of Vargas’s arrest have led advocates, including the ACLU, to allege that ICE retaliated against her for speaking out. Even if that is untrue, the fact that this is the message being taken from her arrest is going to have a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to speak up in future.
ICE still isn’t supposed to be in schools or churches. But they’re pushing the envelope.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the desire to send a message to whole immigrant communities leads ICE agents to the places where immigrants are likely to congregate: the schools where they drop off their children, the churches they attend on Sundays, or the courthouses where they may be appearing to pick up restraining orders or testify as crime witnesses.
The government has decided that message is too powerful — that sending a message to unauthorized immigrants isn’t worth the cost of scaring people out of taking their children to school, or provoking criticism from religious groups for targeting churchgoers. In 2011, the Obama administration issued a memo preventing ICE from conducting enforcement activity at “sensitive locations.” And while the Trump administration has gotten rid of most of Obama’s policies that limit ICE agents, it let that one stand.
But ICE agents are certainly pushing up against the boundaries of the “sensitive locations” restriction. And if ICE can’t go into these locations, but can pick up immigrants on the way there or back, it might serve the same purpose after all.
Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez of Highland Park, California, was pulled over and arrested by ICE agents on February 28 as he took his 13-year-old daughter to school. The 13-year-old, who was still in the car (along with Avelica-Gonzalez’s wife), recorded the arrest on her phone; her cries are audible on the recording.
Avelica-Gonzalez is 48 years old and has been in the US for more than 20 years. He works at a Mexican restaurant and all four of his children (the youngest of whom is 12) were born in the United States. He also has a decade-old DUI conviction, which may have been the reason ICE targeted him — but while they had followed Avelica-Gonzalez since he left the house that morning, they chose to pull him over a block from his daughter’s school.
Irvin Gonzalez of El Paso, Texas, was arrested inside an El Paso county courthouse on February 9. Gonzalez, a transgender woman who cleans houses and teaches Zumba classes, has a significant criminal record — but she was at the courthouse to file a restraining order against an abusive partner. ICE agents initially claimed they arrested Gonzalez outside the courthouse, but video footage showed they arrested her inside it.
Courthouses were included as “sensitive locations” under the Obama administration — precisely because of the fear that unauthorized-immigrant victims of domestic violence, and other crime victims, would be afraid to show up in court — but they’ve quietly been exempted from the policy on the ICE website. Gonzalez is currently being held in immigration detention without bail and is facing federal charges for participating in a money-order laundering scheme.
The “good immigrant/bad immigrant” dichotomy isn’t new — but the weighting has changed
What distinguishes the Trump administration’s approach to detaining these immigrants, more than anything, is that the community and public outcry their arrests have engendered hasn’t caused ICE to reevaluate whether they should be deported after all. Under Obama, immigrants who clearly had deep roots in their communities, and whose arrests sparked local backlash were often released — sometimes with official protection, as Jose Escobar of Houston got in 2012.
You can see this as the Obama administration being averse to bad press. Or you can see it as a way of ensuring that immigrants who were contributing to their communities were spared from deportation, even if they qualified on paper as priorities thanks to old criminal convictions or deportation orders. It was a way of allowing “bad” immigrants to prove themselves to be “good” ones.
That’s not happening under Trump.
There is some hope that local support for immigrants might protect them in at least some cases — Carlos Hernandez of Illinois, for example, was released on bond after an immigration judge was impressed by the letters of support Hernandez got from neighbors and community leaders. But he’s still fighting a deportation case. The public might feel that Hernandez, and so many others like him, are really “good” immigrants — but the administration does not.