Immigration agents arrested 26 people in Minnesota last week as part of three-day operation in the Midwest — the largest such effort in the state since the Trump administration took over with promises of ramped-up immigration enforcement.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said late Wednesday that the operation targeted immigrants with criminal convictions, previous deportations and pending deportation orders. Immigrants and their advocates rushed to parse the announcement for evidence of the shift to a harder enforcement line they have been bracing for.

While immigration authorities under the Obama administration didn't go after most immigrants returning after a deportation or flouting a final order to leave, the new administration has elevated them to a higher priority.

Other than that, last week's operation did not appear significantly different from ones that took place periodically under Obama, said Brad Capouch, the business administrator at Incarnation Catholic Church in Minneapolis. One of those arrested in the Twin Cities was a church member, a factory worker who along with his wife was dropping off his son with a caregiver just off Lake Street one early morning last week.

No checkpoints

The Minnesota enforcement push was smaller-scale than recent immigration operations in other states, and ICE stressed it did not involve checkpoints or random sweeps. Still, Capouch said, "These arrests create a great deal of anxiety for people in the community."

ICE said 86 immigrants were arrested in a three-day operation in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. Of them, 52 had prior criminal convictions. Those included a 35-year-old Nigerian native and registered sex offender who was arrested in Eden Prairie; he had a conviction for terroristic threats that stemmed from a sexual assault, ICE said.

Ten of the detained immigrants were legal permanent residents with criminal convictions. Of the total, 23 had returned to the United States after a previous deportation, which is a federal felony-level offense. Seven had final orders of removal.

"ICE does not conduct random sweeps, checkpoints or raids that target aliens indiscriminately," the agency said in a statement about the arrests. "All ICE operations are targeted based on investigative leads."

In February, ICE agents arrested nine people as part of an enforcement operation in Apple Valley and Burnsville.

Under Obama-era detention and deportation guidelines, returning after a deportation or disobeying a deportation order only made immigrants a priority for deportation if that happened after Jan. 1, 2014 — and even then, they ranked lower than criminals and national security risks.

The Trump administration scrapped these guidelines and broadened the government's enforcement focus significantly. That includes a shift from focusing on those convicted of felony or multiple misdemeanor convictions to immigrants convicted, charged or suspected of any crime.

In front of his son

The Incarnation Church member arrested on Lake Street last week had lived in the United States for about nine years and had no criminal convictions, Capouch said. But he had returned to the United States after he was deported in 2011 to rejoin his wife and his now 8-year-old son, a U.S. citizen. Capouch said the boy was traumatized by witnessing his father's arrest.

"They said they would be going after the drug dealers and the gang members — the people anyone would want off the streets," Capouch said.

Immigration advocates have decried a couple of recent ICE arrests that unfolded in front of the immigrants' children. Although ICE guidelines limit arrests in schools, churches and hospitals, they do not include limitations on arrests in the presence of children.

In a statement about the arrest, ICE said it came about after a series of unforeseen events: Agents first arrested an immigrant who happened to back into their parked, unmarked vehicle and later was found to be in the country illegally. They drove him to his nearby home so he could pick up his passport.

While they waited for him, the Incarnation member and his wife pulled up next to them with their child in the back seat. ICE said the man, who was the passenger, kept moving the gear shift from Park to Drive while the officers were on foot around the vehicle. He was handcuffed after he refused to stop and then was found to have re-entered the U.S. after a previous deportation, the agency said.

'They happened so quickly'

Isaiah, an advocacy coalition of about 100 Minnesota congregations, said it received several reports about immigration arrests in the metro area last week. It deployed its rapid response team, tasked with documenting arrests and providing support to family members such as referral to an immigration attorney.

But, said Isaiah's communications director JaNaé Bates about the arrests, "They happened so quickly. They were always over before we arrived."

Iris Ramos, a Minneapolis attorney who represents one of the immigrants detained last week, questioned the sparse details ICE released about the arrested immigrants' criminal offenses. She says she is seeing more detentions of people with a previous deportation who, unlike most immigrants, are not entitled to a court hearing before they are deported again. ICE agents seem to be detaining more immigrants they happen to encounter in the course of arresting people they are looking for.

"I think enforcement is becoming more aggressive," Ramos said.

Earlier this week, Incarnation's Latino leaders considered a measured response to the arrests here and in other states: urging members without legal status to be prepared for ramped-up enforcement without setting off a panic. They debated whether they should advise members to avoid places where immigrants might congregate, such as some public transportation stops and Latino markets.

"Right now, it seems, Immigration can stop them anywhere," Capouch said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781