It was a cold morning in December, and the players in a now well-rehearsed routine fell into step outside the Federal Building in Hartford. One demonstrator brought the signs: “Not One More,” “Here to Stay,” and “No Human Being Is Illegal.” A Hartford police officer asked dutifully if anyone was planning on getting arrested. “No, not today I think,” said Jesus Morales Sanchez, an organizer with a New Haven immigrant rights group and a familiar face at the rallies.
Amid the biweekly rallies, the men and women seeking sanctuary in churches, the vigils and the press conferences and the sit-in protests, it can seem as if President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to deport thousands more undocumented immigrants than his predecessor has come true. The president’s critics and supporters alike have said he has ’s initiated an unsparing crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Immigrant advocates decry an “unhinged federal administration based on black [and] brown genocide,” while the director of Immigrants and Customs Enforcement (ICE), speaks of rising “momentum” in carrying out the White House agenda.
But ICE’s annual report, issued last week, reveals a more complicated portrait of how the president’s goals are shaping — or trying to shape — the country’s immigration policies.
While arrests of undocumented immigrants increased by 30 percent from the 2016 fiscal year to 2017, the number of deportations decreased by 6 percent in the same period. The 226,000 immigrants deported in 2017 comes nowhere close to the 410,000 deported in 2012 under former President Barack Obama.
ICE claimed that 92 percent of the 143,000 undocumented immigrants arrested in 2017 were convicted criminals, had criminal charges pending, had re-entered the country illegally or defied a removal order. Nearly 2,000 of those arrested were convicted or accused of homicide, the agency said, and 76,000 either faced or were found guilty of dangerous drug charges. But immigration advocates sharply disputed ICE’s account, saying the agency was simply rounding up anyone previously on their radar. In many cases, they said, that meant deporting the people who regularly checked in with ICE.
“Marco Reyes, Nelson, Nury — all of them had been checking in with ICE for years,” said Morales Sanchez, referencing several immigrants whose temporary stays — granted by the Obama administration — were terminated by the Trump White House. “And this year, under the new administration, when they checked in with no changed circumstances or exposure to local law enforcement, all of a sudden they’re being told they’re a priority for deportation.”
ICE, Morales Sanchez said, “is picking the low-hanging fruit — the people they know they can deport without raiding the streets.”
In January, President Trump issued an executive order dismantling Obama-era policies that discouraged agents from deporting parents or people without criminal histories. ICE has since announced it “no longer exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
The deportations carried out on Trump’s watch have sparked a backlash far more pronounced than any under the previous administration, even though Obama deported as many, if not more, immigrants annually than his Republican successor.
“People are paying much more attention, and that doesn’t have to do with numbers,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance who helped a Fair Haven pastor arrange sanctuary for a Norwalk woman fighting a deportation order. “It has to do with the political climate and the anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric Trump is using to talk about the policies he wants to implement.”
Mike Thomas, 62, didn’t know much about the country’s immigration system until the presidential campaign, when Thomas, a former truck driver, started listening for hours on the road to radio hosts discussing Trump and his vision for the country. Thomas disagrees with the president’s policies across the board, but when Trump took office he honed in on immigration — that, he felt, was an area in which he could effect change at a local and a personal level.
“I’m still opposed to the environmental and justice stuff they’re doing,” he said, “but this is human beings. And when you realize that and start to look at individual cases, you begin to see things differently.”
Thomas, a Middletown resident, is now a fixture of the Federal Building rallies too.
It is less Trump’s policies than his rhetoric — the ‘bad hombres’ comment, the characterization of Mexican immigrants as pushers and rapists, the chants of ‘Build the Wall’ — that have sparked an uproar in solidly Democratic states like Connecticut, Bhandary-Alexander said. But the president’s policies themselves do not differ significantly from his predecessor’s, with the rolling back of Obama-era discretionary guidelines a notable exception.
“Under Obama, his rhetoric was not anti-immigrant but his policies were very similar to Trump’s,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
Obama’s legacy is a complicated one for Democrats critical of the Trump White House’s immigration policies. “Obama was a symbol,” said Morales Sanchez. “Obama was the first black president, Obama was the Democratic president after Bush — he meant a lot, to a lot of people. And he still does.”
But “for us,” he added, “[Obama] was just one more politician tearing our communities apart.”
Though Trump’s pledges to curb unauthorized immigration did not translate to the dramatic uptick in deportations he may have hoped for, the agency’s report points to a few factors that could explain the trend, including a precipitous drop in illegal border crossings and a logjam in federal immigration courts.
It is much easier to deport immigrants arrested at the border than those arrested in the American interior, the report states, because those already living in the country tend to have pending legal motions that take time to resolve. And a backlog in the immigration court system that addresses those disputes has further gummed up the deportation apparatus. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University estimates there are 650,411 cases pending in the system. On average, each case has been pending for 691 days.
The Department of Justice has tried to address the glut by hiring more immigration judges. In an August press release titled “Return to Rule of Law,” the department announced 54 new judges had been sworn in, with plans to hire more.
“It may not be September of 2012,” Thomas said, referring to the Obama administration’s high-water mark of more than 1,000 immigrants deported per day, “but not that they’re not trying.”