Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out a large-scale enforcement operation last week targeting undocumented immigrants charged with driving under the influence (DUI), signaling to advocates that while publicly claiming to remove “violent criminals” from local communities, the Trump administration is targeting those with low-level offenses.
Since November 4, ICE has apprehended 25 undocumented immigrants in Long Island, New York, as part of the immigration enforcement sting “Operation Secure Streets.” Twenty-four were targeted because of a DUI-related conviction, according to ICE. “This operation targeted those who were convicted of driving under the influence, some with children in the car, solidifying ICE’s commitment to remove public safety threats from our communities,” said Thomas R. Decker, an ICE field office director.
Michael Admirand, senior legal counsel at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, told Rewire that prior to the Trump administration, he had not heard of ICE operations targeting immigrants with DUIs. Perhaps more alarming, Admirand said, is the rhetoric administration officials use to justify large-scale raids.
“What is becoming clear is that targeting people for DUI is a theme for [the Trump administration],” Admirand said. “In September, during the nationwide raids that detained almost 500 people, the Trump administration said they were targeting violent criminals, like MS-13 gang members. By far, the most prominent conviction among those detained was DUI. There is a striking disconnect between the rhetoric the administration uses to justify these raids and the reality of who is actually being targeted.”
The rhetoric has been effective at justifying raids, but perhaps only because the U.S. public is conditioned to believe the president of the United States is telling the truth when he says his policies are intended to keep people safe by expelling dangerous gang members. A recent poll found that a majority of U.S. residents support Trump’s immigration policies, with 75 percent of respondents expressing support of Trump’s focus on jailing MS-13 members.
“The trend is to manufacture fear and then rely on that fear to justify raids,” Admirand said.
September’s raids, dubbed “Operation Safe City,” targeted so-called sanctuary cities, jurisdictions that do not honor ICE detainer requests. A bulk of detainees had either committed no crime other than being in the United Stated without authorization, or they had been charged with low-level offenses.
Of the 315 undocumented immigrants with “criminal convictions” detained during Operation Safe City, the highest percentage—86 people—were targeted for deportation because they were charged with driving under the influence, a misdemeanor in all 50 states, as Rewire reported. While reports have disputed the number of arrests ICE claimed to make during the operation, of the 498 people the federal immigration agency claims it took into custody, 183 were what ICE considers “collateral arrests”: undocumented people who happened to be in the targeted enforcement area during the operation.
The administration routinely conflates the population it is actually targeting—undocumented immigrants who have had contact with the criminal justice system—with the gang members it is claiming to target. For example, in its press release regarding Operation Safe City, ICE claimed it was “prioritizing aliens with criminal convictions, pending criminal charges, known gang members and affiliates.” But the numbers provided by the agency in the same press release do not suggest that gang members or people who had committed serious crimes were either targeted or detained.
For U.S. citizens, the consequences that stem from a DUI charge differ depending on location. Generally, Admirand said, some type of alcohol treatment program is usually required, along with fines and temporary driving restrictions. Some citizens may find it difficult to find employment after a DUI, primarily people of color, but after these conditions are met, those who abide by the law have their rights and privileges unencumbered, Admirand said.
Undocumented immigrants go through these same conditions, but face the very real threat of detention and deportation. According to ICE, the 25 people arrested during last week’s Operation Secure Streets are “currently being detained pending the completion of removal proceedings.”
Not only is deportation an extreme response to a low-level, non-violent crime, advocates say, but the detention is inhumane. Admirand told Rewire that “the amount of transparency” from ICE related to detention is “disturbingly low,” but what is known is that there is a significant backlog in processing immigration cases and people could spend weeks, or even months, in detention. Before being deported, some people could be detained for more than a year for a first-time DUI, something that would likely spark outrage if it occurred to a U.S. citizen.
“These individuals got on ICE’s radar purely because they were convicted of minor offenses, that’s all it took,” Admirand said. “As soon as they had that conviction, ICE had their address and other identifying information. Once you have a criminal conviction, you are a ripe target for immigration enforcement. ICE may have other means to locate and identify individuals without these convictions, but that’s much more time consuming. A minor conviction places a target on your back and because the Trump administration wants to carry out mass deportations, it’s these low-hanging fruit they will certainly go after.”
Admirand is describing “crimmigation,” a term coined in 2006 by legal scholar Juliet Stumpf to describe the intersection of criminal law and immigration law. The overlap of these systems allows the federal government to detain people suspected of committing crimes and reduce the number of unauthorized people in the country.
In May, Admirand’s organization released a report called “The Promise of Sanctuary Cities and the Need for Criminal Justice Reforms in an Era of Mass Deportation,” which detailed how even so-called sanctuary cities have criminal justice policies in place that funnel undocumented immigrants into deportation proceedings. This includes jurisdictions that have fought the Trump administration’s attack on sanctuary cities, including New York, which is considered one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the United States, even as it criminalizes turnstile jumping in a way that can lead to an undocumented person’s deportation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, perhaps President Trump’s most enthusiastic ally in the fight against so-called sanctuary cities, has made it clear that his goal is to force local jurisdictions to engage in federal immigration enforcement, whether through bullying—such as threatening to remove funding or raiding their cities to make an example of them, as was the case with Operation Safe Cities—or by putting incentives in place. Enter: the 287(g) program.
First launched in 2009, the 287(g) program provides federal funding to jurisdictions that enter into an agreement with ICE for essentially deputizing local law enforcement officers to act as immigration officials. When Admirand spoke to Rewire in May, 38 jurisdictions were enrolled in 287(g) agreements. That number had risen to 60 as of November 15.
“The current administration has placed a premium on trying to get jurisdictions signed into these agreements so that ICE can go into local jails and take people into custody, whether they have a criminal conviction or not,” Admirand said. “Some of the individuals that ICE targeted last week in their DUI raid were likely originally released from the custody of local law enforcement because sheriffs know that ICE detainers have been declared unconstitutional and they’ve decided not to honor them. Others were released on bail, only to be targeted by ICE later at their homes or places of employment.”
In Texas, where ICE officials admitted to performing raids in Austin as retaliation for Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s refusal to honor ICE detainers, with one man being deported to his death, a federal judge ruled that because immigration violations are civil matters that don’t incur criminal penalties, local law enforcement does not have probable cause to hold undocumented people for ICE.
Even in San Bernardino, California, where district attorney Mike Ramos has worked to build a relationship with Sessions, the Department of Justice and Sheriff John McMahon, whose agency works closely with ICE and whose anti-immigrant rhetoric mirrors Trump, has not entered an official 287(g) agreement because of the concerns related to the constitutionality of ICE detainers. As a result, Sessions threatened San Bernardino—and other jurisdictions struggling with gun violence—with the loss of crime-fighting funds.
“It’s the ultimate paradox. You have jurisdictions that have anti-immigrant policies, who work with ICE, who have officials that are basically begging to enter into official agreements with ICE if not for the constitutional concerns, but they’ll still be called a sanctuary city by the administration and they will still be targeted by raids. It really illustrates the emptiness of the term ‘sanctuary.’ Sanctuary is in the eye of the beholder,” Admirand said.
In September, Philip Miller, deputy executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the arm of the agency that oversees large-scale raids, implied that immigration enforcement will continue to be conducted on the street as long as long as jurisdictions do not honor ICE detainer requests. He blamed sanctuary cities for collateral arrests, saying, “If we encounter someone who may not be the target of our enforcement operation, but is nevertheless in violation of the law, we have orders directing us to take those people into custody as well.”
These large-scale raids targeting low-level offenders and ensnaring bystanders as “collateral arrests” are expected to continue.
In September, ICE cancelled plans for Operation Mega, an enforcement operation intended to detain a “historic” number of immigrants, citing weather conditions. Community groups nationwide did not believe ICE had actually cancelled the operation, so more than 200 organizations filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests demanding information related to background, protocols, and procedures for the “supposed immigration raid and other such mass deportations,” according to a press release. ICE failed to respond to the requests at each of its 24 field offices. The organizations on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for failing to release the information.
“I’m incredibly skeptical we’d see an end to these large raids if ICE could simply just go into jails, as they’ve implied. These raids, like the one on Long Island last week and the one in September, are a political message as much as anything else,” Admirand said. “The administration says it’s doing these raids to target MS-13 members and other violent criminals, but the truth is they’re targeting individuals who have no criminal convictions or very minor ones, like DUI, theft, or failure to possess identification. The public should demand that their local officials confront the reality of what is happening in their cities.”