Law enforcement officials arrested more than 2,000 convicted criminal immigrants in a week-long raid, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday. The nationally-coordinated operation, dubbed “Cross Check” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) nabbed foreign nationals from 94 countries who have a wide array of criminal records including serious felony convictions. But nearly half, or 960, of all the “worst of the worst” offenders were individuals whose most serious crimes were misdemeanors. Some of those immigrants finished their criminal sentences years ago and have since turned their lives around.
Among those immigrants is a 42-year-old immigrant from the Middle East who faces possible persecution or death if he’s deported because of his religious belief. The immigrant, whom his wife referred to only by the pseudonym Rick, reportedly became undocumented in 1981 at the age of nine when U.S. immigration officials lost his citizenship application that his father filed for him. His siblings are all U.S. citizens.
Two ICE agents arrested Rick last Thursday morning as he was getting into his truck in his driveway. Rick’s wife told ThinkProgress that ICE agents “made it sound like he would get out that day or the next day. They said, ‘you have a job. You have a child. You’ll probably be able to talk to the supervisor when you get out the next day.’” Rick’s wife said that ICE agents stated that he received a “failure to report” violation stemming from a drug-related possession charge that Rick got in the late 1990s. At the time, he served 18 months in immigration detention, and according to various family members, Rick checked in with ICE officials for five years under supervisory visits and a judge in a “drug court program” as a part of his rehabilitation after he was released from detention.
Around 2006, Rick’s family members said that ICE stopped his check-in visits because “he has no birth certificate, no records that tied him to [the Middle Eastern country he’s from]. … he was ‘not deportable’ so they released him,” his sister said. Rick went on to receive a degree from culinary school and up until his detention, was working for 13 years in the food industry.
“I’m hurt by this,” Rick’s sister said, “My 14-year-old son is livid. We’re just a basket case. For a person to be picked up from his driveway, he’s going to lose his job. He’s been working hard and he’s married. He pays taxes! We’re all humans, we make mistakes. … Not everyone deserves to be sent back, or held, or detained.”
Shocked, Rick’s 14-year-old nephew said that his 7-year-old cousin (Rick’s daughter), “doesn’t really know what’s going on. She thinks he’s on a business trip for work. It’s messed up what ICE is doing … If he were to be deported, it would be dangerous to visit him back in [the Middle Eastern country he’s from]. He’s been a model father, uncle, husband. He’s very caring.”
Two days after ICE’s national raids began, Max Villatoro, the pastor at a Mennonite Church in Iowa City, was arrested when he left his house for work. The Associated Press reported that he was convicted of drunken driving in 1998 and pleaded guilty in 1999 to record tampering for buying a Social Security number, which was then used to get a driver’s license. According to the same news report, “Gloria Villatoro [his wife] said her husband’s past doesn’t reflect who he is. And Margaret Richer-Smith, a fellow pastor at the Iowa City church, described him as a ‘person of great integrity and wisdom.’” An online petition calling to stop his deportation indicated that he has lived in the country for more than two decades. He will likely be deported back to Honduras.
ICE arrested 912 immigrants with DUI convictions. In a speech touting his executive action on immigration relief in November, President Obama said that his administration would go after “felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” The adjoining deportation memo from the Department of Homeland Security prioritized immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies, including some misdemeanor crimes like driving under the influence. But some advocates say targeting those with years-old minor records and families in the United States runs counter to the spirit of the policy.
“Under Secretary Johnson’s November 20, 2014, deportation priority memo individuals that have been convicted of driving under the influence are designated as a second priority for removal,” Matthew Kolken, an immigration lawyer based in Buffalo, New York, said, balking at how the government is justifying the recent raid. “That said, as evidenced by the recent raid, driving under the influence appears to be a priority one factor for consideration by ICE in determining who they target for deportation. It bears noting, driving under the influence is not a ground for removal, and there must be a separate immigration law violation for immigration court proceedings to be instituted against you. In sum, ICE is utilizing a non-removable offense to take immigrants into custody so they can deport them for minor non-criminal violations of U.S. immigration law.”
In several of the arrests, immigrants told stories of agents entering their homes using trickery or false pretenses. About two weeks ago, officials arrested J.F., an immigrant from Guatemala who has been in the United States for 13 years. He has a U.S. citizen wife and two children and worked as a restaurant manager. “He left Guatemala because it was getting ugly there,” his wife said. “His cousins and friends were killed.”
She said that J.F. was charged with child endangerment six years ago and served his time in prison. He was put in deportation proceedings after missing a mandatory court hearing on the issue. “We got a lawyer to try and fix that, by putting a motion to continue, to reopen the case when he missed the court hearing. We were waiting on that when [the ICE agents] came to the house.”
J.F.’s wife said that immigration officials rang the doorbell at 6:47 a.m. saying that “they were cops looking for two guys who were stealing people’s identities. They showed me pictures and everything and asked if they could come into the house. I said, ‘sure, I have nothing to hide,’ then right away asked for his identification. He was playing with our two-year-old. They dragged him out of bed and arrested him.” J.F. is currently still in a Southern California area detention center.
“There isn’t enough money to maintain my kids,” she said. “Right now I’m just trying to fight to have him here. His kids need him here.”
ICE agents used a similar tactic on Luis Bravo, an immigrant activist from Southern California, who was picked up and later released on bond last fall. His brother Daniel told OC Weekly that he answered the doorbell at 6:42 a.m. when ICE agents “said they were looking for a person named ‘Cesar.’ … The ICE agents asked to talk to every adult in the home requesting identification.” Daniel said the agents didn’t show a picture of ‘Cesar’ to Daniel but did show one of Luis. ‘The agents asked my brother to step aside to talk to him about this so-called ‘Cesar,’ One of the officers interrogated and cuffed him.’”
That kind of tactic doesn’t surprise Jan Meslin, a board member at Orange County Congregations Community Organization, who has been visiting detainees for the past 2.5 years. “They seem to be getting people who have committed crimes from a long time ago,” Meslin noted, referencing a trend she’s seen in the kinds of people that ICE has recently been detaining. “It’s all Mexicans from the Los Angeles area… and the Valley. ICE said that they were looking for someone else and then I heard it again and again. That seems to be the way [the immigrants are] getting picked up.”
This is ICE’s sixth nationwide Operation “Cross Check.”