Biden administration remade ICE after Trump: Will it last?

When Anastasia Abarca went to work at 4:40 am, four immigration officers showed up at the door.

They asked about her brother. It was his home and she had just dropped her 7-year-old son there.

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

Despite this, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested her and took her to a detention center 30 minutes from her home in San Jose.

An ICE arrest before dawn in Los Angeles.

An ICE arrest before dawn in Los Angeles.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

It was May 2019. During the presidency of Donald Trump, immigration enforcement was ramped up. Bystanders like Abarca, who were looking for someone else, would be less likely to be spared.

Abarca, who worked as a baker and had been in the US for about 14 years, was released that day. But an expulsion order hung over her head.

After Joe Biden was elected president, people told her to have hope — he would be kinder to immigrants. Her case was dismissed last December.

She still had no legal status. But in a sign of the new government’s priorities, cases like hers were increasingly shelved so the government could focus on deporting others.

Abarca hopes to one day get her US citizenship so she can live free from fear — and so she can visit her family in Mexico.

“I dream of one day having a house, living peacefully and going back to my country and knowing my country,” said Abarca, 37.

Dramas unfolding at the border are often the most attention-grabbing indicators of immigration enforcement. How immigrants are treated inland is less visible but just as revealing.

True to Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, ICE officials in his administration have been ordered to prioritize arrests of almost any undocumented immigrant — even if the person has deep US roots and no criminal record.

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

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

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

High-profile operations targeted what are known as Sanctuary Cities in California. Hundreds of immigrants were captured simultaneously during raids on construction sites. Some immigrants camped in churches to ward off deportation.

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

The pandemic has already slowed immigration enforcement, and the new policy has further reduced arrests and deportations, said Jessica Bolter, an immigration policy expert and former analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

“Trump used ICE as a spearhead for his political agenda,” said John Sandweg, who ran the agency during the Obama administration. “You certainly don’t have any of that. It’s all gone. The agency adheres to common sense priorities.”

In late June, the Biden administration suffered a setback when its deportation priorities, which determined that lack of immigration status alone is not a reason to target someone, were challenged in court and suspended until the U.S. 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 U.S.-Mexico border wait in La Joya, Texas, to be loaded onto a bus handled by U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Democrats also need to appeal to swing voters, and the White House is under political pressure to crack down on immigration.

Throughout the spring, White House officials urged ICE to continue deportations from a program called “Dedicated Docket,” which focuses on families, including many asylum seekers who have recently crossed the border, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation who have not were authorized to comment publicly.

Introduced by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice in May 2021, the special docket accelerates immigration cases from several years to about a year. Some within the government saw this as a way to discourage people from entering the United States by quickly executing deportation orders.

Since then, more than 60,000 immigrants have entered the expedited process, of whom about 11,000 have received deportation orders, according to Times internal data. Around 150 were deported by July, the data shows.

In March, DHS officials outlined ways the families’ deportations ordered in the program could be efficiently deported while explaining the downsides of the aggressive tactics.

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

A DHS document provided to The Times cited the poor visuals of the arrests and forcible removals of families, stating that it appeared “at odds with the image of a new ICE” that takes a holistic “approach to enforcement.” “ track.

“Lifting a kicking and screaming child while mom and/or dad is restrained and escorted to the transport vehicle will not improve public perceptions of ICE or views on immigration enforcement,” the document reads.

DHS officials decided not to use more aggressive tactics. But some officials say pressure from the White House remains.

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

Marsha Espinosa, a DHS spokeswoman, said the special docket allows those who qualify for asylum or other legal status to receive it faster.

“At the same time, it is ordered that those who do not have legal grounds to stay in the US will be deported more quickly,” she wrote in an email. “We are constantly discussing and considering new proposals to strengthen our broken immigration system.”

A White House spokesman said the administration was “working to process asylum requests expeditiously, grant relief where warranted, and remove those who have no legal basis to remain in the United States.”

Immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they exit a cafeteria at the ICE detention center in Dilley, Texas.

Immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they exit a cafeteria at the ICE detention center in Dilley, Texas.

(Eric Gay/Associated Press)

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

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

In the early days of the Biden administration, some ICE officials were anxious to move beyond the Trump era.

The agency trained officials on the new deportation priorities, which focused on illegally resident immigrants who posed a threat to public safety or national security. Officials had to obtain higher-level approval if they wanted to deviate from the priorities.

The changes have pleased some immigrant advocates, while others argue that ICE still arrests and detains too many people.

“There has been a sea change when it comes to domestic enforcement in the US, and that’s a very good thing,” said Sergio Gonzales, director of the Immigration Hub, an immigrant advocacy group.

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

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

But those who advocate tighter immigration enforcement say the Biden administration is sending the wrong message.

Ron Vitiello, an acting head of ICE during the Trump administration, said “the world” noticed that federal authorities would not look for them if an immigrant was in the country illegally.

“Administration holds the idea that ICE’s internal enforcement or work within the communities has no value, and I don’t agree with that,” he said.

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

Lucrecia Puac, 34, a Guatemalan immigrant who crossed the Rio Grande to make it to Los Angeles

Lucrecia Puac, 34, an immigrant from Guatemala who crossed the Rio Grande to make it 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 in place at the right time.

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

She fled from her son’s father, who had blackmailed her and threatened to kill her.

Border guards arrested her and placed an electronic monitor around her ankle.

She eventually joined her mother in East Los Angeles and tried to make a new life for herself while reporting to the immigration court to hear her deportation case.

In March, her attorneys moved to have her case dismissed, and ICE prosecutors had no objection as she had no criminal record and did not fit the new priorities.

Puac Hernandez, 34, has started looking for an apartment and envisioning a future in the US for her son. She works as an inspector in a clothing factory and also cleans houses.

But she fears what will happen after Biden leaves office.

“I think, God, is my case getting reopened?” she said. Biden administration remade ICE after Trump: Will it last?

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