by Christopher Petrella, Ph.D.
Over the last week, federal agents arrested at least 680 undocumented people living in the United States in a series of raids conducted across at least 12 states. ICE’s recent actions represent the first major escalation on an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants residing in the United States since President Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 25 pledging to increase immigration enforcement activity and to enhance security along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Pew Research, 79 percent of undocumented migrants living in the United States are from Latin America and 52 percent are from Mexico.
Though ICE claims the raids had been planned long before Trump Administration released its executive order, immigration lawyers are skeptical, as then-candidate Trump repeatedly made clear his intention to deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants if elected president.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement—or ICE—was created in the aftermath of the attacks September 11, 2001 when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was divided into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The reorganization shifted immigration enforcement responsibilities from the Department of Justice to the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
On Monday, the DHS noted that “approximately 75 percent of those arrested were criminal aliens.” When asked to provide further clarification, one DHS official confirmed that the term “criminal aliens” includes anyone who has entered the United States illegally or overstayed or violated the terms of a visa.” One, then, is left to assume that the remaining 25 percent of those arrested in ICE raids were in the United States on valid green cards and/or visas.
The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed the danger undocumented immigrants pose to U.S. citizens. Such fears, however, appear more grounded in nativism and xenophobia than in fact. According to figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, undocumented migrants accounted for 6.9 percent of federal murder cases in 2013, a figure equivalent to six homicides. Several other studies addressing the relationship of crime and undocumented immigrants found “[they] are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.”
The United States, one should recall, has had a long and troubled history of deporting migrants of Mexican descent. Perhaps the most striking example comes from 1931 in Los Angeles. According to The Washington Post, a team of federal agents “armed with guns and batons sealed off the small public park (La Placita) and herded 400 terrified men and women into waiting areas. The ‘success’ of the raid galvanized authorities in other localities across the country…By 1940, more than 1 million people of Mexican descent had been deported…Government officials used the term ‘repatriation’ to describe their actions, but researchers found that 60 percent of the expelled were U.S. citizens.” In 1954, moreover, President Eisenhower led an effort—officially known as “Operation Wetback” (the term “wetback” is a racial epithet applied to Mexicans at the time)—to detain and deport 1.3 million Mexican migrants described by the U.S. Congressional Office of the Historian as “invading” the United States.
In the more recent past, the Obama Administration prioritized for deportation migrants with a “high-level criminal background.” Though figures dropped toward the end of his second term, President Obama deported dramatically higher numbers of immigrants than any previous president. Please see table below:
As a consequence of escalated ICE activity, the number of individuals held in immigrant detention centers has also increased dramatically. Grassroots Leadership estimates that “since 2005 nearly three quarters of a million people, have been prosecuted in federal court for the crime of improper migration: 412,240 for improper entry and 317,916 for re-entry.” The growth of such a system of migrant prosecutions has determinatively contributed to the to the scourge of mass incarceration. According to the Detention Watch Network, the average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 34,000 in 2014. After over 30 years of growth, the U.S. detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year. Moreover, close to 65 percent of all immigrant detention facilities are now owned and/or operated by for-profit private companies like Corrections Corporation of America (which recently rebranded as CoreCivic) and the GEO Group. The day after Donald Trump’s electoral victory, stocks for Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group soared by 43 and 21 percent, respectively.
In light of these troubling realities, please consider learning more about the history of ICE and getting involved with organizations actively challenging the legal and ethical basis of raiding, detaining, and deporting members of migrant communities living in the United States. Here’s a good place to start: