Since Donald Trump's election, immigrant rights activists have been bracing themselves for mass round-ups of the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens currently in the country. As a candidate, after all, Trump cited Dwight Eisenhower's Operation Wetback—when over a million illegal Mexicans were ejected by border patrol teams in the first year alone—as his "model."
That hasn't happened. But less than a month after Trump's inauguration, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly radically revised the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) that Barack Obama put in place in the last few years of his term. As its name suggests, the program's goal was to focus on deporting hardened criminals—"bad hombres," in Trump's telling—but largely lay off everyone else. Kelly still wants to go after the violent offenders, but he has also given Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) free rein to target practically everyone.
Before, when ICE agents raided Latino homes or communities acting on specific intel about specific bad guys, they were supposed to limit their searches to those particular targets, not go on a general hunting expedition for other undocumented residents. No more. Now agents can take anyone without a valid visa into custody for detention and deportation.
This is why, though the multi-city raids conducted in Trump's first few weeks were planned under the Obama administration, they had a radically different impact than they otherwise would have. ICE agents picked up about 675 people; only a fifth (around 140) had any serious conviction on their record. About half were what are called "collaterals" in ICE lingo—folks with either no criminal conviction (in 177 cases) or convictions only for minor offenses such as traffic violations or driving under the influence (another 163).
Kelly has also expanded the scope of "expedited removals," in which immigrants are thrown out of the country without a court review or hearing. Under Obama, such removals were limited to people who'd been in America for only two weeks and were caught within 100 miles of the border. Now the policy is being applied to all undocumented folks anywhere who have been here for under two years.
Cruelest of all is the administration's policy on so-called check-ins. These are people who have been convicted of some minor crime, such as obtaining a fake ID so they can work. But because they have American children or other deep ties to the country, they're given a reprieve from deportation so long as they check in with ICE every few months.
Under Kelly, several such undocumented immigrants showed up for a routine check-in and were summarily deported. As a result, others in this cohort are confronted with the unenviable choice of either appearing at the ICE office and risking never making it home, or skipping their appointments and becoming absconders. The latter course means abandoning nearly all hope of being regularized some day.
And then there are the undocumented people who were brought to America by their parents when they were children. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he has a "big heart" and would leave these immigrants unmolested. And in theory, Kelly's memo outlining his policy changes didn't touch the Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which forestalls deportation proceedings against this group and grants them temporary work permits.
But DACA gives no guarantee they won't be detained or forced to leave at some point in the future. Their status can be rescinded if they so much as put a toe out of line. Since they're still technically here illegally, that can be hard to avoid. Minor infractions like traffic violations or "transporting"—a.k.a. giving a ride to—another illegal immigrant can get DACAs stripped of their status. Many have been detained in recent months, although only one known DACA holder has been actually deported so far.
The upshot is that within three months of assuming office, the Trump administration arrested under Trump 21,262 undocumented aliens, a jump of 33 percent over the same period last year. Trump's numbers now are at nearly the same level as Obama's 2014 peak, which prodded him to implement the PEP program because he was running out of actual criminals to deport. It is thus no surprise that about a quarter of those arrested have committed no crimes other than being here illegally in the first place.
The only reason the administration's deportation numbers aren't even higher, according to Joshua Breisblatt of the pro-immigration American Immigration Council, is that Congress has refused to give it all the funds it wants. Lawmakers handed Trump some money for mending the existing border fence in their May spending bill. But the legislature has refused his request for more detention centers, more courts, and 10,000 more ICE agents.
Trump is trying to overcome these constraints by reinstating a notorious program that Obama shut down, in which local authorities voluntarily sign up to become Homeland Security agents. This lets them enforce immigration law, acquiring tremendous powers to detain and arrest suspected illegal aliens.
Whether such aggressive enforcement will make a dent in the total numbers of undocumented immigrants in the country remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that under Trump, they and their loved ones are in for some rough times.