Biden administration remakes ICE after Trump: Will it last?

When Anastasia Abarca left for work at 4:40 am, four immigration officers appeared at the door.

They asked his brother. It was his home, and he had just dropped off his 7-year-old son there.

Abarca, a Mexican immigrant, is in the country without legal status. But he is not the one they are looking for, and he has no criminal record.

However, officers from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested him and took him to a detention center 30 minutes from his home in San Jose.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials made the early arrest in Los Angeles.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

As of May 2019. During the presidency of Donald Trump, immigration enforcement has intensified. Bystanders like Abarca, swept up in the search for others, are more 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 a deportation order hangs over his head.

After Joe Biden was elected president, people told him to have hope — he would be kinder to immigrants. Last December, his case was dismissed.

He still has no legal status. But in a sign of the new administration’s priorities, cases like his have increasingly been removed from the docket so the government can concentrate on deporting others.

Abarca hopes to one day get his US citizenship, so he can live without fear — and so he can visit his family in Mexico.

“My dream is to have a house one day, live in peace and be able to go back to my country and get to know my country,” said Abarca, 37.

The dramas that play out at the border are often the most attention-grabbing signs of immigration enforcement. How immigrants are treated within the country is less visible but equally telling.

In keeping with Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, ICE officials in his administration have been ordered to prioritize almost all immigrants without legal status for arrest — even if the person has deep roots in US and no criminal record.

ICE agents move an immigrant after an early morning raid in Duarte.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents move an immigrant after an early morning raid in Duarte.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

The high-profile operations targeted so-called sanctuary cities in California. Raids on workplaces netted hundreds of immigrants at a time. Some immigrants camped in churches to avoid deportation.

The Biden administration reversed many of these changes and implemented several new policies, including limiting arrests of pregnant women and expanding “sensitive” areas such as playgrounds where arrests can be made. usually unlimited.

The pandemic has already slowed immigration enforcement, and the new rules have reduced arrest and deportation numbers, said Jessica Bolter, an immigration policy expert and former analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

“Trump has used ICE as the tip of the spear for his political agenda,” said John Sandweg, who led the agency during the Obama administration. “You certainly don’t have that. Everything is gone. The agency follows common sense priorities.”

In late June, the Biden administration suffered a setback when its deportation priorities, proving that lack of immigration status alone is not a reason to target someone, were challenged in court and suspended until the US Supreme Court rules on their legality.

A mother and daughter from Honduras who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally, wait to board a bus

A mother and daughter from Honduras who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally wait to board a bus to be processed by the US border patrol in La Joya, Texas.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

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

Throughout the spring, White House officials pushed ICE for more deportations from a program called the “dedicated docket” that focuses on families, including many asylum seekers, who have recently crossed the border. , according to three sources with knowledge of the situation that was not authorized. comment publicly.

Launched by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice in May 2021, the dedicated docket speeds immigration cases from several years to nearly a year. Some within the administration saw it as a way to prevent people from entering the US by quickly enforcing deportation orders.

Since then, more than 60,000 immigrants have entered the expedited process, with about 11,000 receiving deportation orders, according to internal data obtained by The Times. About 150 had been deported through July, according to the data.

In March, DHS officials outlined options for how to efficiently deport families ordered removed from the program, while detailing the downsides of aggressive tactics.

Those options include locking families up in hotels and deporting them for 48 hours, arresting one in two adults in a family and fining families who don’t leave the country.

A DHS document obtained by The Times noted the difficult optics of arresting and forcibly removing families, explaining that it seemed “contrary to the image of a new ICE” taking a holistic “implementation strategy.”

“Picking up a screaming and yelling child while restraining the mother and/or father and placing them in a transport vehicle will not improve the public’s perception of ICE or perceptions of immigration enforcement,” the document said.

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 removals,” said an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

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

“At the same time, those found to have no legal basis to remain in the US are ordered to be removed more quickly,” he wrote in an email. “We continue to discuss and consider new proposals to strengthen our broken immigration system.”

A White House spokesman said the administration is “working to expeditiously process asylum claims, provide relief where it is appropriate, and remove those found to have no legal basis to remain in the United States.”

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

Immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Dilley, Texas.

(Eric Gay/Associated Press)

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

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

In the early days of the Biden administration, some ICE officials were eager to get past the Trump era.

The agency trained officers on new deportation priorities, focusing on immigrants in the country illegally who pose threats to public safety or national security. Officials must obtain a higher level of approval if they want to deviate from priorities.

The changes have been welcomed by some immigrant advocates, while others argue that ICE is still arresting and detaining too many people.

“There’s been a big change when it comes to internal enforcement in the US, and that’s a very good thing,” said Sergio Gonzales, the head of the Immigration Hub, an immigrant advocacy organization.

Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, the lawyer who represented Abarca, said in an email that “changes are slow, especially on the ground.”

Dismissing Abarca’s case is “the exception, not the rule,” and ICE still doesn’t use prosecutorial discretion as much as it should, he said.

But those in favor of stricter 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 has noticed” that if an immigrant is in the country illegally, federal authorities are not going to search for them.

“The administration is putting forth the idea that internal enforcement or the work of ICE within communities is not important, and I don’t agree with that,” he said.

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

Lucrecia Puac Hernandez and her son stand in front of a mural in LA

Lucrecia Puac Hernandez with her son Anderson Molina. She said she fled Guatemala because her child’s father threatened to kill her.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

For immigrants like Lucrecia Puac Hernandez, priorities are just in time.

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

She was on the run from her child’s father, who she said blackmailed her and threatened to kill her.

Border patrol agents stopped him and placed an electronic monitor around his ankle.

He eventually moved in with his mother in East Los Angeles, trying to build a new life while reporting to immigration court for hearings on his deportation case.

In March, his lawyers moved to dismiss his case, and ICE prosecutors did not object, because he had no criminal history and did not fit the new priorities.

Puac Hernandez, 34, has started looking for an apartment and is thinking about a future in the US for his son. He works as an inspector in a garment factory and also cleans houses.

But he fears what will happen after Biden leaves office.

“I think, God, will my case be reopened?” he says.