ICE policy change means more arrests of non-criminal undocumented immigrants
Here's a poster child of why "non-criminal" undocumented immigrants need to be arrested and deported, authorities say: Eswin Mejia of Honduras, who unlawfully entered America at age 17.
In 2016, Mejia was arrested for drunken driving after his truck struck a vehicle, killing a young Iowa woman. Before his case was adjudicated, Mejia vanished while out on bond.
He remains at large today and is on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's "most-wanted" list.
Yet as ICE points out, with no convictions, Mejia is currently a "non-criminal" — a classification that's been swelling on the agency's arrest docket since President Donald Trump took office.
But it's not swelling because of fugitives such as Mejia.
"Non-criminal" arrests are happening more often, according to immigration experts, because of an acknowledged shift in ICE policy that lets the agency detain and deport more longtime, taxpaying community members, often without warning and often when they check in at ICE offices.
- Syed A. Jamal of Lawrence, for three decades a science student, researcher and educator with only a speeding ticket to his name, arrested in his front yard in January. The Bangladeshi father of three whose siblings are U.S. citizens is fighting for a stay of deportation.
Amer Othman Adi, an Ohio businessman for nearly 40 years whose American ex-wife claimed their marriage was a ruse. Though he had been remarried to a wife of 30 years, he was charged with "marriage fraud" and ICE arrested him when he reported for a meeting with them on Jan. 16. He's been deported to Jordan.
Letica Stegall, popular manager of The Blue Line hockey bar in Kansas City. Born in Mexico, the married mother of one admittedly entered the country illegally 20 years ago and came under ICE's radar after a 2011 DWI arrest. She was arrested in March while driving to the gym and deported to Mexico four days later.
Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos from Arizona, a married mother of two who authorities knew was undocumented. She was arrested in February 2017, checking into ICE offices as she had done since 2008, after being caught using a fake Social Security number. She was deported to Mexico within 24 hours.
Crecensio Mendez Ramirez, a Kansas City, Kan., construction worker and father of four. ICE nabbed him Feb. 7 at his regular check-in to pick up a work permit that had just been updated. He's been employed in the U.S. for 12 years.
If it feels as if in the Trump era deportations of the non-criminal variety are making headlines on a weekly basis, it's true.
While former President Barack Obama's administrators told immigration officers to save on resources when dealing with undocumented persons contributing to society and lacking criminal histories, Trump's directive is different.
Today, "everyone's a target" if they're without proper papers, said Kansas City immigration lawyer James Austin.
The government confirms: "ICE no longer exempts classes of removable aliens from potential enforcement," according to the agency's report on 2017 arrests and deportations.
Analysts at the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies, which has long called for more uniform enforcement, support the policy shift. The group's director of policy studies, Jessica Vaughan, says most immigrants being deported have done something wrong to grab ICE's notice, even if the agency records them as non-criminal.
Cases such as Jamal's, who garnered massive support for his academic credentials and high community respect, "are not typical of ICE's caseload," Vaughan said. "I have yet to see a case of someone arrested who was, quote, perfectly harmless."
How did we get here?
According to ICE's own data, such arrests are increasing.
Deportation statistics for September 2017, for example, reveal the sharp difference in recent years.
Of 8,815 administrative arrests of immigrants for removal that month, ICE categorized 4,230 — almost 48 percent — as non-criminals.
Compare those numbers to arrests in September 2015: 8,444 total, 1,096 non-criminals (13 percent). And September 2016: Of 9,306 total arrests, 1,525 were non-criminals (16 percent).
As for the entire 2017 fiscal year, ICE reported 37,734 non-criminal arrests, more than twice the number of the previous year, as reported by The Washington Post. The newspaper cited critics accusing the Trump administration of "grabbing at the lowest-hanging fruit of deportation-eligible immigrants" to boost enforcement statistics.
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said agency enforcers are just doing their jobs.
"You can't want to be a part of this great nation and not respect its laws," Homan said, noting that detainees are subject to judges' orders. "They get a decision from the immigration judge — most times will appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, then to a circuit court.
"When that due process is over, that final order from a federal judge needs to mean something or this whole system has no integrity."
It's easy to trip over the terminology.
Many think that all people unlawfully living in the U.S. are criminals, but the government hasn't seen it that way.
Deportation cases are administrative actions — civil, not criminal — though in many instances they spring from arrests for serious crimes.
Trump in his State of the Union address highlighted the 2016 killings of two New York teen girls. Indicted in the murders were unaccompanied minors who illegally entered the country and belonged to a gang called MS-13.
Drug dealing, theft and violent crime do occur within undocumented populations, immigration experts agree.
A February study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center notes that ICE last year began detailing how thousands routed through the removal process were not convicted criminals but faced pending charges — primarily for drunken driving or lesser traffic offenses, and drug possession.
It's a distinction that had never been used before.
While serious alleged violations such as larceny, sexual assault and homicide made the list, "traffic offenses" accounted for 24,438 pending charges. "Dangerous drugs," 19,065. "Obstructing judiciary, Congress, Legislature, etc.," 9,623.
"General crimes," 6,623 pending charges, and another 3,600 for disturbing the peace.
By blurring the lines between criminal convictions and sometimes vague or insignificant "pending charges," ICE was able to report that 89 percent of its fiscal year 2017 administrative arrests involved some level of "criminality." About 11 percent — 15,478 total — had "no known criminal charges or convictions," the agency reported.
"By the time they're deported," said Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, "they usually are criminals."
In addition to highlighting ICE's stepped-up arrests of the past year, the Pew report revealed a long-term trend that underscores how complicated things can get when looking at immigration enforcement data.
Pew's study reached back to 2009, Obama's first year in office, to find that arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions numbered more than 180,000 — almost five times the non-criminal arrests in Trump's first year.
ICE under Obama posted high numbers of arrests by sweeping workplaces employing undocumented persons, mostly without criminal records. The statistics bolstered the administration's stance of not being soft on illegal immigration, said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer.
"Back in 2009, ICE was relatively new," operating under a giant Department of Homeland Security formed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Neudauer said. "I don't believe we were tracking data that well at the time."
One big difference between Obama and Trump?
Many of those immigrants arrested during Obama's tenure never were deported.
Another caveat is that Obama may have been trying to set an example to Congress, said Kansas City immigration lawyer Jonathan Willmoth: If he was firm in enforcing existing laws, would lawmakers consider reforming them?
But non-criminal arrests dropped sharply beginning in 2011, when then-ICE director John Morton issued a memo urging "prosecutorial discretion" for unlawful residents with strong family, educational, military or community ties.
The Trump administration swiftly rescinded that directive.
Critics contend that today's authorities, under pressure to pad arrests, want to cast all undocumented persons as criminals. Said attorney Austin: "ICE today is loose and easy on who's a criminal and who's not."
Agency spokesman Neudauer said that's not true, though enforcement is tougher.
"We still place a higher priority on aliens who have criminal records," he wrote in an email to The Star, "but we do not turn a blind eye to non-criminal aliens who are otherwise violating immigration law."
Indeed, numbers show that ICE arrests of immigrants with criminal records far outnumbered arrests of non-criminals for the past several years.
It's been a little more than 15 months since the stricter policies took effect; how they'll be applied in the future is yet to be seen.
For now, any non-criminal arrest resonates among the many immigrants who attend and live near Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan.
"It makes for a pretty dismal existence for them when these things happen," the Rev. Rick Behrens said recently at a letter-writing event in support of detainee Mendez Ramirez.
"There are 11,000 undocumented immigrants in Wyandotte County," Behrens said. "You count all of their children and you're talking about a significant chunk of our population."
Jessica Piedra, an attorney who serves mostly Hispanic clients from her office on Southwest Boulevard, said Trump seems driven to get as many of the undocumented out of the country before Congress gets around to considering reforms that might provide millions a path to citizenship.
Another common argument: If immigrants keep getting busted while following supervisory rules, they'll quit showing up at ICE check-ins and retreat into the shadows.
Or maybe not, said Jeremy McKinney of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Executive Committee.
He noted that the non-criminals making recent news typically have families, good jobs and supportive friends. They'll try all they can to stay, he said.
"I've had a handful of clients just disappear off the map" for fear of being handcuffed at any moment, said McKinney. "But most of them want to cooperate with the government. That's the type of people they are."