Tony Pham, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, flew to the Twin Cities on Wednesday to announce the arrests of more than 100 people nationwide in the United States unlawfully, 31 of them in Minnesota.

The arrests took place between Oct. 19 and 23 in Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. All those arrested were in the U.S. illegally, and 70% of them either had been convicted or charged with crimes that included kidnapping, domestic assault, burglary, cruelty toward a child and robbery, Pham said.

But the timing of the announcement raised questions first asked last month in a Washington Post report. That story said the Trump administration planned an enforcement operation targeting so-called sanctuary cities and jurisdictions, in an effort to highlight the president’s stance on immigration leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

That operation led to the arrest of more than 170 people between Oct. 3 and 9.

Asked Wednesday why the arrests were being announced a week before the election, Pham deflected the question and responded that the operation wasn’t a “crackdown” — the term used by the reporter — but was meant to “lift up and bolster” the ICE workforce partly by showing them that he values their work.

The significance of the news wasn’t clear. ICE reported making 143,000 arrests in 2019, which amounts to an average of just under 400 a day. The operation that Pham talked about Wednesday resulted in more than 100 arrests over several days.

Pham said he’s pushed for more enforcement operations since taking over at ICE several weeks ago, and an agency spokesperson said the work was being done “without regard to politics.”

Robyn Meyer-Thompson, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said that in her view the timing of the announcement was twofold: to instill fear in immigrant communities and appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment among voters.

“This is part of a series of press conferences held in battleground states the week before the election,” she said. “I think the timing is suspect.”

While it’s not outside the scope of ICE to conduct enforcement operations, putting people into detention raises their risk of contracting COVID-19, Meyer-Thompson said. ICE has other tools to carry out its work and still limit the spread of the disease, she said.

U.S. immigration officials conducted 267,000 deportations in 2019, slightly more than the year before but still fewer than a decade ago, when deportations approached 400,000 annually. The U.S. deported 409,849 people during the Obama administration in 2012, the most recent peak.

This month’s arrests in Minnesota occurred mostly in the Twin Cities metro area and included people from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Somalia. One was a known gang member, and another had been deported before.

A 47-year-old man from Romania was arrested in Cambridge, Minn., who was eligible for deportation because of domestic abuse and second-degree assault convictions. The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office had arrested him in 2016 on the second-degree assault charge.

ICE issued a detainer for the man with the Sheriff’s Office — meaning they wanted to take him into custody — but he was released. The man, who was convicted in 2017 in Anoka County District Court, is now in ICE custody.

Pham, who was named acting ICE director in August, said local governments that don’t cooperate with ICE officials must shoulder the blame when wanted persons commit crimes.


Correction: A previous version listed the wrong location for the arrest of a 47-year-old man from Romania.