The Biden administration remade ICE after Trump: will it last?

As Anastasia Abarca was leaving for work at 4:40 a.m., four immigration officers showed up at the door.

They asked for his brother. It was her house, and she had just dropped off her 7-year-old son there.

Abarca, a Mexican immigrant, was in the country without legal status. But she wasn’t the one they were looking for and she didn’t have a criminal record.

Yet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested her and took her to a detention center 30 minutes from her home in San Jose.

A pre-dawn ICE arrest in Los Angeles.

A pre-dawn ICE arrest in Los Angeles.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

It was May 2019. During Donald Trump’s presidency, immigration enforcement had intensified. Bystanders like Abarca, driven to look for someone else, were less likely to be spared.

Abarca, who worked as a baker and had been in the United States for about 14 years, was released that day. But an eviction order hung over his head.

After Joe Biden was elected president, people told him to have hope – he would be nicer to immigrants. Last December, his case was closed without further action.

She still had no legal status. But in a sign of the new administration’s priorities, cases like his have been increasingly taken off the docket so the government can focus on deporting others.

Abarca hopes to one day obtain her American citizenship, so that she can live free from fear and can visit her family in Mexico.

“I dream of having a house one day, of living in peace and of being able to return to my country and get to know my country,” said Abarca, 37.

The dramas unfolding at the border are often the most eye-catching signs of immigration enforcement. The way immigrants are treated inside the country is less visible but just as revealing.

True to Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, his administration’s ICE agents were ordered to make almost any immigrant without legal status a priority for arrest — even if the person had deep roots in the United States and no criminal record.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers transfer an immigrant after an early morning raid in Duarte, California.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers transfer an immigrant after an early morning raid in Duarte, California.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Large-scale operations have targeted so-called sanctuary cities in California. Raids on construction sites captured hundreds of immigrants at a time. Some immigrants camped in churches to avoid deportation.

The Biden administration reversed many of those changes and enacted new policies, including limiting arrests of pregnant women and expanding “sensitive” areas such as playgrounds where arrests are generally prohibited.

The pandemic had already slowed immigration enforcement, and the new policies have further reduced the number of arrests and deportations, said Jessica Bolter, immigration policy expert and former analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. .

“Trump used ICE as the spearhead of his political agenda,” said John Sandweg, who led the agency during the Obama administration. “You certainly don’t have any of that. All of that has disappeared. The agency adheres to common sense priorities.

In late June, the Biden administration suffered a setback when its deportation priorities, establishing that lack of immigration status alone is not a reason to target someone, were challenged in court and suspended until the United States Supreme Court rules on their legality.

A mother and daughter from Honduras who illegally crossed the US-Mexico border wait to be loaded onto a bus

A Honduran mother and daughter who illegally crossed the US-Mexico border wait to be loaded onto a bus for processing by US Border Patrol, Rio Grande Valley Sector, La Joya, Texas.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Democrats must also appeal to swing voters, and the White House is under political pressure to be tougher on immigration.

Throughout the spring, White House officials pushed ICE for more deportations from a program called the “dedicated case” that focuses on families, including many asylum seekers, who recently crossed the border, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to comment publicly.

Launched by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice in May 2021, the dedicated role expedites immigration cases from several years to approximately one year. Some in the administration saw it as a way to deter people from entering the United States by quickly carrying out deportation orders.

Since then, more than 60,000 immigrants have entered the fast-track process, of whom about 11,000 have received deportation orders, according to internal data obtained by The Times. About 150 have been deported through July, the data shows.

In March, DHS officials outlined options for effectively deporting families ordered deported under the program, while detailing the downsides of aggressive tactics.

These options included detaining families in hotels and deporting them within 48 hours, arresting one in two adults in a family, and imposing fines on families who did not leave the country.

A DHS document obtained by The Times noted the poor focus of the arrest and forcible deportation of the families, explaining that it seemed “in conflict with the image of a new ICE” taking a “holistic approach to the ‘application”.

“Picking up a kicking and screaming child while mom and/or dad are restrained and driven to the transport vehicle will not improve public perception of ICE or opinions about ICE law enforcement. ‘immigration,’ the document says.

DHS officials decided against adopting more aggressive tactics. But some officials say pressure from the White House remains.

“They want the deterrent factor. They want removals,” said an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Marsha Espinosa, spokeswoman for DHS, said the dedicated record allows those who qualify for asylum or other legal status to obtain it more quickly.

“At the same time, those found to have no legal basis to remain in the United States should be deported more quickly,” she wrote in an email. “We are constantly discussing and reviewing new proposals to strengthen our failing immigration system.”

A White House spokesperson said the administration is “working to expeditiously process asylum claims, granting reparation where it is deserved and deporting those who lack a legal basis to remain in the United States.” “.

Immigrant asylum seekers hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE detention center in Dilley, Texas.

Immigrant asylum seekers hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE detention center in Dilley, Texas.

(Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Earlier this year, White House officials asked if ICE could reconsider a pandemic-related recommendation that no more than 75% of beds in detention centers be filled, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation. were not authorized to comment publicly.

In June, ICE eliminated the recommendation. A DHS official said the change was due to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not pressure from the White House.

Early in the Biden administration, some ICE officials were eager to move beyond the Trump era.

The agency trained officers on the new deportation priorities, which focused on immigrants entering the country illegally who posed a threat to public safety or national security. Agents had to get approval from a higher level if they wanted to deviate from priorities.

The changes have pleased some immigrant advocates, while others argue that ICE is still arresting and detaining too many people.

“There’s been a sea change when it comes to domestic law enforcement in the United States, and that’s a very good thing,” said Sergio Gonzales, head of Immigration Hub, an immigrant advocacy organization. .

Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, the lawyer representing Abarca, said in an email that “changes have been slow, especially on the pitch.”

The dismissal of the Abarca case was “the exception, not the rule,” and ICE is still not using prosecutorial discretion as much as it should, he said.

But those in favor of tougher immigration enforcement say the Biden administration is sending the wrong message.

Ron Vitiello, acting director of ICE in the Trump administration, said “the world” has noticed that if an immigrant is in the country illegally, federal authorities will not search for them.

“The administration is promoting the idea that domestic enforcement or ICE’s work within communities has no value, and I disagree with that,” he said. declared.

Meanwhile, it could be nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling on the Biden administration’s deportation priorities.

Lucrecia Puac, 34, an immigrant from Guatemala who crossed the Rio Grande to Los Angeles

Lucrecia Puac, 34, an immigrant from Guatemala who crossed the Rio Grande to Los Angeles, with her son Anderson Molina, 11, at Ruben Salazar Park in Los Angeles.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

For immigrants like Lucrecia Puac Hernandez, the priorities were indeed timed.

Hernandez traveled from Guatemala to the Rio Grande, crossing the river with her 4-year-old son on her shoulders in February 2016.

She was on the run from her son’s father, who she said had extorted her and threatened to kill her.

Border Patrol agents arrested her and placed an electronic monitor around her ankle.

She eventually joined her mother in East Los Angeles, trying to build a new life for herself while appearing in immigration court for hearings on her deportation case.

In March, her attorneys decided to drop her case, and ICE prosecutors did not object because she had no criminal history and did not fit the new priorities.

Puac Hernandez, 34, began looking for an apartment and imagining a future in the United States for his son. She works as an inspector in a clothing factory and also cleans houses.

But she fears what will happen after Biden leaves.

“I think, my God, my case will be reopened?” she says.

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