Arrests made by federal immigration agents at a south metro mobile home park and apartment complex last week are prompting a fevered question across Minnesota: Was it business as usual or the first sign here of the kind of stepped-up immigration enforcement favored by President Donald Trump?
The Trump administration said Monday that more than 680 immigrants were arrested nationally last week as part of an enforcement sweep. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in Minnesota said the state was not part of this operation, and the nine local arrests on Feb. 7 were “routine law enforcement.”
To some local advocates and attorneys, last week’s arrests did signal an enforcement shift, one that swept up immigrants who were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” — people without criminal convictions who might have gotten a pass under the Obama administration’s narrower deportation guidelines. Here and nationally, advocates have been bracing for just such a shift since a January executive order that greatly broadened the nation’s priorities for detention and deportation.
Experts at the Detainee Rights Clinic, a local campus effort that tracks immigration detentions, said it was too soon to diagnose a major change. Leaders said they have seen an uptick in the number of immigration detainees at local jails, but not yet a marked shift in who is detained.
“Absolutely the plan is to ramp up immigration enforcement,” said the clinic’s Linus Chan, a University of Minnesota law professor. “Right now, it still looks like ICE is mainly focusing on people who might have been picked up under the old priorities.”
The Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is part, said that a series of operations in California, Texas, Illinois, Georgia and New York City were routine and targeted immigrants who “pose a threat to public safety, border security or the integrity of our nation’s immigration system.”
About three-quarters of those arrested had criminal convictions, from homicide and aggravated sexual abuse to DWIs.
But on Sunday talk shows, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller touted what he called “greatly expanded and more vigorous immigration enforcement activities” as a direct result of the Trump’s order.
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE’s St. Paul office, said the recent south metro arrests were “simply routine law enforcement.” He stressed ICE did not conduct random sweeps or set up checkpoints.
But he said he could not immediately provide a number of the total arrests his agency made in Minnesota last week beyond the ones in Apple Valley and Burnsville.
Local advocates and immigration attorneys cite reports of additional arrests in the metro and state. And they said that though ICE agents appeared on the lookout for specific people, some immigrants without criminal backgrounds got swept up. Attorneys such as Susana de León said that was the case in St. Paul Wednesday, where she said authorities carried out an arrest warrant for two people and ended up putting an additional three into immigration proceedings.
Raquel Vences, 24, lives in the Cedar Knolls park in Apple Valley with her husband, Federico, who works in construction. She said community members noticed ICE agents waiting outside the Hwy. 77 entrance around 5 a.m. Tuesday. “They were just pulling over work vans that seemed to have construction crews inside,” Vences said.
“I have been living there for five years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she added.
Major enforcement sweeps such as last week’s national push also took place under the Obama administration, nabbing as many as 2,000 immigrants at a time. The previous administration also routinely detained and deported people without criminal records, making it harder to say whether a marked shift in enforcement under Trump is already underway.
Still, after deporting record numbers of people in earlier years, the Obama administration more recently had narrowed its focus to those with felonies or multiple misdemeanors as well as recent border crossers. That caused a marked drop-off in detentions and deportations — and an assumption among many immigrants living in the country illegally that they were likely safe as long as they avoided brushes with the law.
Trump’s election and a January executive order redefining those considered “criminal aliens” by the government has shattered that sense of security. The order suggests the government would prioritize immigrants who might have committed any criminal offense — even if they haven’t been convicted or in some cases even charged.
The order also appears to include people who have used a false Social Security number to get a job, a widespread practice among immigrants without legal status, and immigrants who “in the judgment of an immigration officer” pose a risk to public safety and national security.
State Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, said he has spoken with ICE agents frustrated with the guidelines they had to follow under Obama. Quam, sponsor of proposed legislation that would require local law enforcement to collaborate with immigration authorities, said it is too soon to report a shift under the new administration. But he said he would welcome a return to broader-based enforcement.
“If we’ve got a law, we enforce that law,” he said. “To tell people sworn to uphold the law not to enforce the law — that’s not the way to do things.”
But Virgil Wiebe, an immigration expert at the University of St. Thomas, said Trump’s executive order is too ambiguous.
“It’s kind of hard to know where the priorities are,” he said. “It’s a huge category.”
The new priorities appear to include “Adam, Eve and everyone in between,” said Chan.
He said the Detainee Rights Clinic has seen more immigration detainees in some of five county jails that contract with ICE in the state. Earlier this month, Chan and U students found more than 170 at Sherburne County jail, where he says numbers had dipped under 100 in late 2016. In a meeting last week, the Twin Cities immigration court administrator discussed plans to dedicate both immigration judges to the cases of detained immigrants, pushing back cases of asylum seekers and others not in detention, Wiebe said.
But the clinic hasn’t yet chronicled an uptick in detainees without criminal convictions. Meanwhile, said Chan, “Rumors seem to abound everywhere. It’s very confusing.”
Reports of raids and detentions ricocheted on social media and in Minnesota immigrant communities, with advocates sometimes toeing a fine line between advising vigilance and trying to contain premature panic.
Some school officials in the metro said educators have fielded anxious questions from immigrant students since the February arrests. Bloomington Schools provided a flier about what to do if a family member is arrested for immigration violations, spokesman Rick Kaufman said.
St. Paul immigration attorney Gloria Contreras Edin fielded 50 calls last Wednesday alone from immigrants seeking advice on handling visits from immigration agents and a possible detention.
“At this point, we’re just trying to calm people and provide accurate info,” she said.
At Cedar Knolls, many construction workers stayed home for days after the ICE operation there, skipping work for fear of run-ins with immigration agents, said Felipe Illescas, an immigration advocate.
This week, he said, “Folks are starting to go back to work. But everyone is very cautious and not knowing what to do.”
Miguel Otárola and John Reinan contributed to this report.