U.S. immigration authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants in at least a half-dozen states this week in a series of raids that marked the first large-scale enforcement of President Donald Trump's Jan. 26 order to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally.
The raids, which officials said targeted known criminals, also netted some immigrants who did not have criminal records, an apparent departure from similar enforcement waves during former President Barack Obama's administration that aimed to just corral and deport those who had committed crimes.
Trump has pledged to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Last month he also made a change to the Obama administration's policy of prioritizing deportation for convicted criminals, substantially broadening the scope of who the Department of Homeland Security can target, to include those with only minor offenses or those with no convictions at all.
Immigration officials confirmed that agents this week raided homes and workplaces in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, the Los Angeles area, North Carolina and South Carolina, netting hundreds of people. But Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said they were part of "routine" immigration enforcement actions. ICE dislikes the term "raids," and prefers to say authorities are conducting "targeted enforcement actions."
Christensen said the raids, which began Monday and ended Friday at noon, found undocumented immigrants from a dozen Latin American countries. "We're talking about people who are threats to public safety or a threat to the integrity of the immigration system," she said, noting that the majority of those detained were serious criminals, including some who had been convicted of murder and domestic violence.
Immigration activists said the crackdown went beyond the six states DHS identified, and said they had also documented ICE raids of unusual intensity during the past two days in Florida, Kansas, Texas and Northern Virginia.
That undocumented immigrants with no criminal records were arrested and could potentially be deported sent a shock through immigrant communities nationwide amid concerns that the U.S. government could start going after law-abiding people.
"This is clearly the first wave of attacks under the Trump administration, and we know this isn't going to be the only one," Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, an immigrant youth organization, said Friday during a conference call with immigration advocates.
ICE agents in the Los Angeles area Thursday swept a number of individuals into custody over the course of an hour, seizing them from their homes and on their way to work in daytime operations, activists said.
David Marin, ICE's field director in the Los Angeles area, said in a conference call with reporters Friday that 75 percent of the approximately 160 people detained in the operation this week had felony convictions; the rest had misdemeanors or were in the U.S. illegally. Officials said Friday night that 37 of those detained in Los Angeles have been deported to Mexico.
"Dangerous criminals who should be deported are being released into our communities," Marin said.
A video that circulated on social media Friday appeared to show ICE agents detaining people in an Austin shopping center parking lot. Immigration advocates also reported roadway checkpoints, where ICE appeared to be targeting immigrants for random ID checks, in North Carolina and in Austin. ICE officials denied that authorities used checkpoints during the operations.
"I'm getting lots of reports from my constituents about seeing ICE on the streets. Teachers in my district have contacted me - certain students didn't come to school today because they're afraid," said Greg Cesar, an Austin city council member. "I talked to a constituent, a single mother, who had her door knocked on this morning by ICE."
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said he confirmed with ICE's San Antonio office that the agency "has launched a targeted operation in South and Central Texas as part of Operation Cross Check."
"I am asking ICE to clarify whether these individuals are in fact dangerous, violent threats to our communities, and not people who are here peacefully raising families and contributing to our state," Castro said in a statement Friday night.
Hiba Ghalib, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta, said the ICE detentions were causing "mass confusion" in the immigrant community. She said she had heard reports of ICE agents going door-to-door in one largely Hispanic neighborhood, asking people to present their papers.
"People are panicking," Ghalib said. "People are really, really scared."
Immigration officials acknowledged that authorities had cast a wider net than they would have last year, as the result of Trump's executive order.
The Trump administration is facing a series of legal challenges to that order, and on Thursday lost a court battle over a separate executive order to temporarily ban entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, as well as by refugees. The administration said Friday that it is considering raising the case to the Supreme Court.
Some activists in Austin and Los Angeles suggested that the raids might be retaliation for those cities' so-called "sanctuary city" policies. A government aide familiar with the raids said it is possible the predominantly daytime operations - a departure from the Obama administration's night raids - meant to "send a message to the community that the Trump deportation force is in effect."
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant advocacy group, said the wave of detentions harks back to the George W. Bush administration, when workplace raids to sweep up all undocumented workers were common.
The Obama administration conducted a spate of raids, and also pursued a more aggressive deportation policy than any previous president, sending more than 400,000 people back to their birth countries at the height of his deportations in 2012. The public outcry over the lengthy detentions and deportations of women, children and people with minor offenses led Obama in his second term to prioritize convicted criminals for deportation.
A DHS official confirmed that while immigration agents were targeting criminals, given the broader range defined by Trump's executive order they also were sweeping up non-criminals in the vicinity who were found to be lacking documentation. It was unclear how many of the people detained would have been excluded under Obama's policy.
Federal immigration officials, as well as activists, said that the majority of those detained were adult men,and that no children were taken into custody.
"Big cities tend to have a lot of illegal immigrants," said one immigration official who was not authorized to speak publicly because of the sensitive nature of the operation. "They're going to a target-rich environment."
Immigrant rights groups said they were planning protests in response to the raids, including one Friday evening in Federal Plaza in New York City, and a vigil in Los Angeles.
"We cannot understate the level of panic and terror that is running through many immigrant communities," said Walter Barrientos of Make the Road in New York City, who spoke on a conference call with immigration advocates.
"We're trying to make sure that families who have been impacted are getting legal services as quickly as possible. We're trying to do some legal triage," said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which provides assistance and advocacy work to immigrants in Austin. "It's chaotic," he said. The organization's hotline, he said, had been overwhelmed with calls.
Jeanette Vizguerra, 35, a Mexican house cleaner whose permit to stay in the country expired this week, said Friday during the conference call that she was newly apprehensive about her scheduled meeting with ICE next week.
Fearing deportation, Vizguerra, a Denver mother of four including three who are U.S. citizens, said through an interpreter that she had called on activists and supporters to accompany her to the meeting.
"I know I need to mobilize my community, but I know my freedom is at risk here," Vizguerra said through an interpreter.