Trump’s ‘Deportation Force’ Looks A Lot Like Obama’s — So Far

Sweeping immigration raids netted more than 600 people last week — but that wouldn't have been so unusual under Obama either

Feb 13, 2017 at 6:52 PM ET

The first large-scale deportation sweep under the Trump administration sent shockwaves across immigrant communities and their supporters nationwide. Rumors of checkpoints and random searches flooded social media. Protests erupted on the streets. President Donald Trump was quick to declare a political victory.

Yet the raids, which netted nearly 700 people between Monday and Friday last week, showed little difference in scale or scope from the ones aggressively employed by Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama. During similar sweeps overseen by Obama, immigration officials routinely rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants — and sometimes far more. Caught up in the dragnet were often those immigrants without criminal records, the very people that advocates now worry will be swept up under by Trump’s expanded immigration order.

“We’ve seen this type of activity for years,” said Harlan York, an immigration attorney who has chaired committees on immigration for the state bars of New York and New Jersey. “What’s different is that more people are actually paying attention to what’s going on.”

Credit for the change goes to the Republican businessman and reality television star, whose harsh and unwavering rhetoric toward undocumented immigrants fueled his run for the White House — and has roused unprecedented concern for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Since capturing the presidency, Trump has promised to banish up to three million immigrants and signed an executive order that expands the pool of immigrants considered priorities for deportation, including those without criminal records.

The president’s repeated vows and early orders had immigrant communities on high alert as federal agents ramped up enforcement last week. A series of raids targeting known criminals swept across large cities flush with undocumented residents and at least 11 states, including Georgia, Kansas, and North Carolina, law enforcement officials said. All told, federal immigration officials arrested up to 680 people at homes and in workplaces, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The actions prompted fierce criticism from immigration groups. “Shame on ICE for putting New York’s immigrant communities— four million strong— in a state of panic,” said Steven Choi, the director of the New York Immigration Coalition, echoing the outcries of advocates from around the country.

While some viewed the surge of arrests as proof of a newly emboldened, anti-immigrant White House, the number of detentions tallied during the first large-scale raid under Trump falls far short of those regularly achieved by his predecessor. As recently as March 2015, the Obama administration managed to arrest 2,000 people nationwide during a five-day enforcement effort, according to figures published by ICE.

Furthermore, roundups in areas that have vowed to fight Trump’s immigration crackdown — which advocates fear could be prime targets for retaliation — netted fewer people than recent sweeps conducted by the previous White House. Roughly 40 people were arrested during raids across the New York City area last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said. Last August, under the Obama administration, ICE agents arrested 58 people in the area during a similar operation. And while federal officials reported they detained 160 undocumented immigrants throughout southern California last week, that’s nearly a third less than the 244 rounded up during a four-day sweep in August 2015.

Deportations soared to record highs under the Obama administration, to more than 2.5 million. During the height of its immigration crack down —when 409,849 people were deported in 2012 — the Obama White House was banishing more than 1,100 people a day from America’s borders.

Immigration officials last week said that the most recent raids had been planned weeks in advance and were not tied to change in policy. “The focus of these targeted enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis,” a spokeswoman for Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, said.

Still, immigrants rights groups cited numerous incidents where arrests seemed to indicate an aggressive new tack on enforcement. In Virginia, agents who went to an apartment on Thursday looking for a wanted man arrested a handful of other people in the apartment, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for Legal Aid Justice Center’s immigrant advocacy program in northern Virginia, told the Associated Press.

Near Los Angeles, 50-year-old Manuel Mosqueda, a house painter with no criminal history, was rounded up and almost deported back to Mexico after federal law enforcement showed up at his house looking for someone else and learned that Mosqueda was living in the country illegally.

“With Donald Trump being president, I see no hope for us,” Marlene Mosqueda, Manuel’s daughter, tearfully told reporters last week.

Such stories, however, were also common under Obama, even after his administration scaled back its immigration enforcement policy in 2014 and began to prioritize convicted criminals for deportation. Tens of thousands of of low-priority immigrants continued to be arrested and sent back to their home countries. Among them, according to multiple reports: factory workers, fathers, and even teenagers walking to school. An analysis of federal immigration records by the Marshall Project last year found that 60 percent of all immigrants deported between November 2014 and April 2016 were those who had no criminal conviction or whose only crime was immigration-related, such as illegal entry or re-entry.

Of course, immigration enforcement under Trump could soon become much more aggressive. Most advocates fear it will, given the president’s recent executive order to make almost any immigrant living illegally in the U.S. a target for deportation. “Make no mistake: this definition is broad enough to cover nearly anyone who came to this country to survive, to put food in their children’s mouths, or to flee violence and persecution,” said Deborah Axt, a director with Make The Road New York, an immigration advocacy group.

But people — and the press — will be watching closely.

“There’s a greater fear than there’s ever been. You’ve got a lot of scared people,” said York, the immigration attorney in New Jersey. “If that causes folks to start caring more about immigrants in this country, I say better late than never.”