Raids across the US are sweeping up undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records

Motherless in Phoenix.
Motherless in Phoenix.
Image: AP Photo/Astrid Galvan
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US president Donald Trump has suggested the focus of his immigration policy will be getting rid of “the bad ones.” Based on recent law enforcement actions, it seems like that could mean anyone in the country illegally.

A series of raids this week by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted undocumented immigrants across the country, including in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Among the hundreds of people arrested were many with no criminal records, though ICE officials said the majority were criminals.

Immigration advocates in Los Angeles say ICE launched a series of raids on Feb. 9 targeting undocumented immigrants. Their claims are based on a spike in cases of detained immigrants, some of which they say had no criminal background.

That same day, immigration authorities deported a Mexican woman they had previously considered a non-threat. She came to the US illegally as a girl and was convicted of impersonating someone else by using a fake social security number, but officials had chosen not to enforce a deportation order issued against her. Instead, she was simply required to check in with immigration officials once a year, which she had been doing in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lived until she was sent back to Mexico.

ICE spokespeople told media the Los Angeles arrests were routine operations targeting dangerous individuals, and that the deported woman had no legal basis to be in the US.  The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Quartz.

“We’re talking about people who are threats to public safety or a threat to the integrity of the immigration system,” Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for DHS, told the Washington Post.

Whether part of an official new crackdown policy or not, the moves are quickly dispelling any sense of certainty in immigrant communities generated by former president Barack Obama’s more discretionary approach. While his record-high deportations earned him the moniker of “deporter-in-chief” in immigrant advocacy circles, he also applied a set of clear guidelines that prioritized criminals and made immigrants whose sole offense was to be in the country illegally breathe a little easier. That appears to be gone under Trump.

“Everyone is vulnerable now,” says Wendy Feliz, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group. “Mothers and fathers are going to be taken from their children. It’s going to be a real tragedy before our eyes, over and over again.”

Like Obama, Trump singled out criminals as deportation targets in his Jan. 25 executive order on immigration. But he also included a much broader category in his priority list that could encompass anyone who has entered the country illegally. “We went from a situation in which there was a very limited focus on deportation to basically deportation on steroids,” says Mo Goldman, an immigration lawyer in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re being told that everyone’s a priority.”

The new guidelines are generating a wave of panic in immigrant communities, Goldman and others report. It appears to be well-founded. Ally Bolour, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, says one of his clients is in the process of being deported after ICE agents picked him up from his house on Thursday. He had no criminal record, says Bolour.

“This atmosphere of uncertainly and fear that Trump really has created in all spheres of our lives as Americans, this is just part of it,” he says.