Campaigning in Mesa in December 2015, candidate Donald Trump pledged, “We are going to stop illegal immigration.”
He added: “If they are here, when I come in, they’re all going back.”
We’re now nearly a year into Trump’s presidency. So is the crackdown on undocumented immigrants that he promised actually happening?
The answer is complicated.
For Dagoberto Bailon, an undocumented organizer for Trans Queer Pueblo, the biggest change from prior administrations is that people feel empowered to be blatantly racist now.
“I don’t think a lot has changed from the Obama administration,” he explained. “I think what happened was that a door was opened. Before, everything happened behind closed doors, and now there’s no need for that.”
He recalls his mom, who is also undocumented, telling him: “Nothing has changed, and it’s not like we weren’t living this before. It’s just the face of the person that has changed.”
In September, the Washington Post reported that ICE agents had arrested 43 percent more people since Trump took office than they did over the same time period during the year before. They’d also arrested nearly three times as many so-called “noncriminal immigration violators,” people who faced no criminal charges.
But that still doesn’t put the agency on track to match the annual arrest totals from 2012 through 2014, when then-president Barack Obama earned the nickname “deporter-in-chief.”
Locally, too, ICE isn’t arresting nearly as many people as it was during the height of Arizona’s anti-immigrant fervor. According to records released by the agency, ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations carried out a total of 2,504 administrative arrests in Arizona between January 20 — the date of Trump’s inauguration — and June 7. That averages out to fewer arrests per month than in 2009, when ICE arrested 13,463 people in total.
Since Trump took office, Phoenix has been spared from the massive workplace raids that have taken place in other parts of the country. Nor have there been reports of ICE officers showing up in Latino neighborhoods and grabbing everyone in sight, as well-meaning white liberals had initially feared.
Instead, people are quietly disappearing, one by one.
Most of the time, ICE doesn’t have to do much work to find them. Every day, unauthorized immigrants get picked up by local police — often for minor infractions like using false identification to get a job or driving without a license — and are delivered to the county jail. They’re then held there on detainers until ICE can come and pick them up. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the Maricopa County Jail ranks third in the nation for the number of ICE detainer requests.
While that might not be as dramatic as a military-style raid that sweeps up hundreds of people at once, it’s no less painful for the families that are being torn apart, Maria Castro, a community organizer for Puente, points out
“It’s like when you get a little cut, and you’re bleeding slowly,” Castro said. “When you have a big gush, everyone’s panicking. But you’re still bleeding, and you’re still dying. It’s just slower.”
And though there may not have been a huge surge in arrests since Trump took office, immigration attorneys have felt a distinct shift in how these cases are prosecuted.
“In the past, with a case that I thought was sympathetic, I was pretty confident in telling the person, ‘Hey, I can’t make you a permanent resident, but there’s a good chance that we can get your case closed so you can stay with your family,’” Phoenix-based attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado said. “That’s out the door.”
Under the Obama administration, people with young children and no criminal history would often be allowed to remain in the country indefinitely, even given a work permit. Though they had little chance of ever becoming citizens, they also weren’t considered a priority for deportation.
That’s no longer the case, said attorney Delia Salvatierra, who is also based in Phoenix. “The directive is to get everybody.”
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In Arizona, the home of SB 1070 and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, harsh anti-immigrant policies are nothing new. But in the past, it was often local law enforcement officials like Arpaio who were behind workplace raids and targeted “crime suppression sweeps.” That meant lawyers could appeal to the federal government, arguing that the state had overstepped its authority, since immigration enforcement is supposed to be the federal government’s job.
On November 8, the same day that Arpaio was voted out of office, Trump was voted in. And that possibility disappeared.
“We can no longer think of ICE or the federal government as being on our side,” Maldonado said. “They’re the ones that we’re fighting against now."