Riding With ICE: 'We're Trying To Do The Right Thing' | KERA News

Riding With ICE: 'We're Trying To Do The Right Thing'

Jul 21, 2017
Originally published on July 21, 2017 1:30 pm

On a recent morning in Texas, Fort Worth police arrested a man who threatened to burn down his girlfriend's apartment. The officers also detained two Mexican nationals at the apartment complex because they suspected them of being in the country illegally.

Then police called ICE Fugitive Operations. Soon men with guns and dark ballistic vests swarmed the parking lot.

Under former President Barack Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not have bothered with either of these immigrants. During the previous administration, ICE agents primarily targeted more serious felons and recent arrivals.

"We would have had to let them go because they did not meet our enforcement priorities at the time," said Chuck Winner, the supervisory detention and deportation officer at the scene.

Asked if that would have been frustrating, he said: "Very."

Under President Trump, ICE agents are told to arrest anyone in the country illegally. Since Trump's executive order in January calling for more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws, ICE arrests have skyrocketed and the agency plans to hire more agents.

Immigrants without legal status "should be afraid," according to Thomas Homan, the federal agency's acting director.

But that tougher stance has put the agency on the hot seat. Immigrant advocates say ICE agents are fearmongering and arresting people who only broke the law to come to the U.S. for a better life. The agents say they're misunderstood and that they simply want to enforce the law.

"We're not apologizing for what we're doing," said Simona Flores, director of the Dallas ICE field office. "We're trying to do the right thing."

ICE's Dallas operation, which covers nearly half of Texas and all of Oklahoma, is the busiest in nation. In the first four months of 2017, arrests of all unauthorized immigrants nearly doubled to 4,969 compared with 2,586 in the same period last year. Most had criminal records, and many have been deported.

At the same time, ICE arrests of noncriminals have increased dramatically. In Dallas, those arrests more than tripled, from 249 to more than 814.

At the parking lot in Fort Worth, Agent Delfino Saldaña questioned one of the men, a 21-year-old house painter from Guanajuato, Mexico, with gang tattoos and facial piercings, and then handcuffed him.

"We're going to go ahead and take him into custody, put him in the vehicle," Saldaña said.

Saldaña said the painter was a confirmed gang member when he was younger. Agent King Cross used an encrypted cellphone app to run the man's fingerprints.

"He's got no criminal history in the U.S., no prior immigration contact," Cross said.

The painter falls into the noncriminal category. The violation for which he will be deported is crossing the border illegally two years ago. Agents ran a record check on the other immigrant and found out that he has been charged several times for re-entering the country after deportation.

"In days past, if we encountered someone in the house who is not a priority, we would let that person walk," supervisory officer Winner said as he drove a white, government-issue Expedition back to Dallas after the bust. Like many agents, he served in the military and with the Border Patrol.

"Now if we encounter someone in the house that is illegally in the country, in violation of the law, we will go ahead and arrest that person."

Flores is riding in the back seat. "I would say that the morale has gone up. There is a sense of, 'OK, I don't need my boss's permission for every decision I make,' " she said.

Under the new enforcement guidelines, ICE operations have stoked outrage. In March, agents apprehended 26 unauthorized immigrants reporting for court-ordered community service in Fort Worth. Some observers thought the roundup was mean-spirited. Flores said the immigrants had drunken driving and drug convictions and were deportable.

Immigrant advocates say the dragnet is cast too wide. They say immigrants who pose no threat to the community are being swept up, along with dangerous criminals.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement "is really instilling this sense of fear within our community. And I think that has disastrous effects," said Michelle Garza Pareja, the Dallas-based associate executive director of RAICES, an immigrant-rights group.

Flores said that over her nearly 30-year career as a federal immigration officer, she always has used discretion. Agents might not detain a single mother, for example, if she is the sole provider for her children. Flores said her decisions are informed by her own difficult upbringing in San Antonio.

"I know what poverty is like. I know what hunger is like," she said, wiping away tears. "I know what physical abuse is like in the household. But I also know what love is like. And I know that personally, professionally, I want this world to be a better place."

She added: "We listen to every case by case when it's brought to our attention that might need special attention."

NPR embedded with Fugitive Operations for two days in early July. In that time, agents spent most of their time sitting in unmarked SUVs parked in working-class Hispanic neighborhoods, drinking coffee and watching houses.

In years past, ICE agents used to knock on doors and ask their targets to come out.

"Lately they don't even open the door for us," Winner said.

Today, immigrant communities are savvier. They spread the word on social media: If an ICE agent knocks, even if he or she has a warrant, don't open the door.

"Now we end up having to sit and do surveillance a lot more, so it definitely makes it a little bit tougher," Winner said.

The officers of Fugitive Operations, a component of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, insist they do not do random, indiscriminate sweeps; they only go after specific targets.

"We have a lead on someone that's in the country illegally or is a criminal alien who's been convicted of a crime and is in this country, we target that person for arrest. We don't go set up checkpoints on the highway. We don't do mass raids at employers, we don't do that," deportation officer Gerry Hutt said.

On NPR's two-day ride-along, the team selected eight targets. They included a Mexican found guilty of driving while intoxicated, a Salvadoran who had been deported three times before, a Bangladeshi mortgage broker convicted of a sex crime, and Antonio Jimenez.

"I know I had felonies, and I know that [deportation] could happen," Jimenez said, sitting disconsolately on a metal bench in an ICE processing room. He has convictions for burglary and heroin possession and was wanted for parole violations. This means he also would have been a target under Obama's ICE.

"I'm not gonna worry. ... So as long as my wife's OK, my son's OK, I'm good," he said, sniffling.

The heavyset, whiskered 21-year-old was brought to this country illegally by his parents from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, when he was an infant. A couple of hours earlier, ICE had cuffed him and led him out of his house in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite as he told his wife and 15-month-old son goodbye.

But he doesn't blame the agents.

"No, they did their job," Jimenez said. "They weren't mean, they weren't rude or nothin'. Why would I get mad at them?"

When his deportation case is complete, agents will escort Jimenez to the middle of the international bridge in Laredo, and he will walk to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to start his new life.

On that same morning back in Dallas, ICE Fugitive Operations selected four new targets.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration has been clear - immigrants in the country illegally, quote, "should be afraid." Those were the words of Thomas Homan, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And that stance has put his agency on the hot seat. Immigrant advocates say ICE agents are fearmongering, that they're arresting people who only broke the law to come to the U.S. for a better life. The agents say they are misunderstood and that they simply want to enforce the law.

NPR's John Burnett recently embedded with ICE in Texas. Here's his report.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Men with guns in dark ballistic vests swarm over the parking lot of a seedy apartment complex in Haltom City. Fort Worth police have arrested a man who threatened to burn down his girlfriend's apartment. Along with him, they detained two Mexican nationals suspected of being here illegally, so police call ICE fugitive operations. Agent Delfino Saldana handcuffs one of the men.

DELFINO SALDANA: ...Medical problems? OK. (Speaking Spanish). We're going to go ahead and take him in - take him into custody. Put him on our vehicle.

BURNETT: He's a forlorn 21-year-old house painter with gang tattoos. Officer King Cross runs his fingerprints.

KING CROSS: He's got no criminal history in the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, no criminal history in the U.S.

CROSS: ...And no prior immigration contact.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK.

CROSS: But he is a confirmed gang member, said it when he was younger.

BURNETT: So his is a - it's a non-criminal arrest.

CROSS: That's correct. Basically, he's from Guanajuato. He paid a coyote to cross him across the border. He's been here a couple years.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, Chuck, what address are you out in front of?

BURNETT: Chuck Winner, a supervisory detention and deportation officer, is driving a white government-issue Expedition back to Dallas after the bust. Under President Obama, he would go after serious felons and recent arrivals, not these two men in the parking lot - one with no criminal record and the other charged with re-entry after deportation.

CHUCK WINNER: We would have had to have let them go because they did not meet our enforcement priorities at the time.

BURNETT: And would that have been frustrating?

WINNER: Very.

BURNETT: Under Trump, ICE agents are told to arrest anyone in the country illegally. ICE's Dallas area of operations is the busiest in the nation. It covers nearly half of Texas and all of Oklahoma. In the first four months of 2017, arrests of all unauthorized immigrants has nearly doubled to almost 5,000, compared to the same period last year. Most had criminal records. But ICE arrests of non-criminals have increased more sharply across the country. In Dallas, they've tripled to more than 800 in the first four months.

WINNER: In the days past, if we encountered someone in the house that was not a priority, we would just let that person, you know, walk. Now, we would - if we encounter someone in the house that is illegal in the country, in violation of the law, we will go ahead and arrest that person.

BURNETT: Riding in the back seat is Simona Flores, the director of the Dallas ICE field office.

SIMONA FLORES: I would say that the morale has gone up. There's a sense of, OK, I don't need my boss's permission for every decision I make.

BURNETT: ICE operations have stoked outrage, like the arrests in March when agents apprehended 26 unauthorized immigrants reporting for court-ordered community service in Fort Worth. Some observers thought the roundup was mean-spirited. But Flores says they had drunk-driving and drug convictions.

FLORES: We're not apologizing for what we're doing. We're trying to do the right thing.

BURNETT: Immigrant advocates say the dragnet is cast too wide. They say immigrants who pose no threat to the community are being swept up along with dangerous criminals. Michelle Garza Pareja is a pro-bono attorney in Dallas with an immigrant rights group called RAICES

MICHELLE GARZA PAREJA: What I do think they're doing is really instilling this sense of fear within our community. And I think that has disastrous effects.

BURNETT: Back in her office, Simona Flores says, over her 30-year career, she's always used discretion. They might not detain a single mother, for example, if she's the sole provider for her children. Flores says her decisions are informed by her own difficult upbringing in San Antonio.

FLORES: I know what poverty's like. I know what hunger's like. I know what physical abuse is like in the household. But I also know what love is like. And I know that personally, professionally, I want this world to be a better place.

BURNETT: She takes a moment to compose herself, then continues.

FLORES: We listen to every case by case, when it's brought to our attention, that might need special attention.

BURNETT: NPR rode along with fugitive operations for two days. In that time, agents spent most of their time sitting in unmarked SUVs parked in working-class, Hispanic neighborhoods, drinking coffee and watching houses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do we have eyes on the individual coming out?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: She looks like a female.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You see that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: She just walked back in.

BURNETT: Years past, ICE agents used to knock on doors and ask their targets to come out. But Chuck Winner says that tactic is not effective anymore.

WINNER: Lately, they don't even open the door for us.

BURNETT: Today, immigrant communities are savvier. They spread the word on social media - if ICE knocks, even if they have a warrant, don't open the door.

WINNER: Now, we end up having to sit on - and do surveillance a lot more. So making - it definitely makes it a little bit tougher.

BURNETT: The officers of fugitive ops say this is how they make most arrests. They don't do random, indiscriminate sweeps. Deportation Officer Gerry Hutt says they go after specific targets.

GERRY HUTT: We have a lead on someone that's in the country illegally or is a criminal alien that's been convicted of a crime and is in this country. We target that person for arrest. We don't go set up checkpoints on the highway. We don't do mass raids at employers. We don't do that.

BURNETT: On the two-day ride-along, the team selected eight targets. They included a Mexican found guilty of driving while intoxicated, a Salvadoran who'd been deported three times, a Bangladeshi mortgage broker convicted of a sex crime and Antonio Jimenez.

ANTONIO JIMENEZ: I mean, I know I had felonies. And I know that that could happen.

BURNETT: Jimenez has convictions for burglary and heroin possession and was wanted for parole violation, which means he also would have been a target under Obama's ICE. His parents brought him here illegally when he was 2. The heavyset, whiskered 21-year-old sits on a metal bench inside the ICE processing center, considering his change of fortunes.

JIMENEZ: I'm not even worried. I mean, I know where I'm going, so - I mean, as long as my wife's OK, my son's OK, I'm good, you know?

BURNETT: A couple of hours earlier, ICE cuffed him and led him out of his house, as he told his wife and his infant son goodbye. But he doesn't blame agents.

JIMENEZ: Oh, no. They did their job, you know? I mean, they weren't mean. They weren't, like, you know, rude or nothing. So I can't - why would I get mad at them?

BURNETT: When his deportation case is complete, agents will escort Antonio Jimenez to the middle of the international bridge in Laredo. And he will walk to Nuevo Laredo to start his new life. On that same morning back in Dallas, ICE fugitive operations will select four new targets. John Burnett, NPR News, Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAX TAILOR (FEAT. IDIL) SONG, "FOR THE WORST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.