Over the last five days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents conducted what they call an “enforcement surge” in the Los Angeles area, arresting more than 160 undocumented immigrants. Immigrants’ rights groups and lawyers told The Daily Beast that ICE also increased its enforcement activities—including, in some cases, in apartment buildings—in a number of cities around the country, including Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Austin.
ICE officials and the White House say this is normal. Activists, lawyers, and members of Congress say it’s a major change—and likely just the beginning.
“The muscle to do this kind of stuff is here—it’s just that the leash has been taken off,” said Sarah Owings, an immigration attorney in Atlanta. “They’re out and they’re hunting.”
Owings said upward of 40 undocumented immigrants have been detained in the Savanna, Georgia, area over the last two days, according to the family of an undocumented immigrant currently detained there. And she said she knows of two apartment complexes with high concentrations of Latino residents where ICE officers went door-to-door looking for specific individuals. When people opened their doors, Owings said, the ICE officers would ask everyone present to show proof that they were in the United States legally.
“They’re picking up and rounding up anyone they can get,” she said.
In a statement, an ICE spokesperson criticized recent media coverage of the Los Angeles apprehensions.
“The rash of recent reports about purported ICE checkpoints and random sweeps are false, dangerous, and irresponsible,” the spokesperson said. “These reports create panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger. Individuals who falsely report such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”
On Feb. 9, an ICE official told reporters on background that reports the agency arrested 100 people in the Los Angeles area that day were “grossly exaggerated.” Virginia Kice, an ICE spokesperson, told The Daily Beast there were 38 arrests in the L.A. area that day.
Kice and Michael Short, a White House senior assistant press secretary, both told The Daily Beast that the enforcement activities were routine.
Many immigration activists and Capitol Hill Democrats say they doubt that. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, told The Daily Beast that among his conference, there’s “not much” confidence in the agency’s statements. And Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership—a group based in Austin that opposes immigrant detention and deportation—said he suspected the agency may have targeted Austin because of frustration over the county sheriff’s recently announced refusal to comply with ICE’s detainer requests.
Libal said his group estimates that about two dozen undocumented immigrants have been arrested by ICE agents on Feb. 9 and 10.
“We have a deportation defense hotline and it’s ringing off the hook,” he said.
He added that he wasn’t aware of a time in recent memory when that many undocumented immigrants were arrested in Austin in such a short period of time.
“This is a level of intimidation that seems new,” he said. “And our community is not going to be intimidated.
“It very much feels retaliatory,” he added. “It feels like a vicious attack.”
Grijalva said he thought the enforcement surge may be a response to Trump’s recent defeat in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel moved unanimously to block enforcement of his travel ban.
“Every time he gets hit politically, like in the 9th Circuit, his reaction is to go back to that mantra and use it and use it,” Grijalva said, of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign. “Except now it’s not campaign rhetoric.
“I’m not a conspiracy-theory person,” he added. “But it walks like a duck. It’s gotta be a duck.”
Short said that’s completely wrong.
“They are routine, enforcement operations targeting criminals,” Short said. “Rep. Grijalva’s comments couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Kice said ICE’s enforcement activities are motivated solely by public safety and law enforcement concerns.
“Our enforcement operations are lead-driven and they are targeted,” she said.
And David Marin, who helps head ICE’s Los Angeles field office, told reporters on a conference call on Friday evening that the L.A. enforcement activity was “nothing out of the ordinary.”
“These are targeted enforcement operations, nothing different than what we’ve been doing for the past five, six, seven years,” he said.
Immigration activists point to one of Trump’s first executive orders as the impetus behind the enforcement surge. In a blog post, Azadeh Erfani of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition wrote that the president’s Jan. 25 executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” made upward of 8 million undocumented immigrants top priorities for deportation.
“Our immigrant community likely will experience the paradox of being both at the margins of society and the target of law enforcement,” Erfani wrote.
Trump hasn’t kept all his immigration-crackdown campaign promises; despite making it a key campaign issue, the president has yet to undo the temporary deportation protections that President Barack Obama made available to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
A staffer for a Democratic congressional office that frequently criticized the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement practices said the week’s enforcement uptick was uniquely concerning. He said that though the ICE conducted raids that resulted in dozens of arrests during Obama’s presidency, this particular surge worries activists because it’s happening in so many cities around the country at the same time and in the wake of Trump’s executive order. Some Hill Democrats worry this could be the new normal, he added.
Owings said she shares that concern—to a limit.
“It will happen until the beds are full,” she said. “They’ll have to stop at some point, right?”