To read the press of late, you might think that every undocumented immigrant in the country regularly checks into an office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The news aspect of this is that such check-ins are increasingly leading to the person’s deportation (removal) from the United States.
Anyone following the news reports has probably seen statements like these:
- “In cities like New York and Baltimore, fear of ICE check-ins—which once felt customary for non-violent undocumented immigrants—are now causing waves of apprehension.” (The Chicagoist, April 18, 2017.)
- “. . . numerous faith-based groups, immigration activists . . . and local politicians rallied in support of Ragbir during his “check-in” with ICE . . . What had been fairly routine in past years now seemed ominous. Ragbir, like dozens of others every day, did not know when he entered the Lower Manhattan building if he would see his family again.” (The Villager, March 27, 2017.)
- “Immigrants—many of whom have lived and worked in the country for decades—have been arrested at home, at work, and at routine check-ins with ICE officials.” (Mother Jones, March 14, 2017.)
All these reports do a good job at conveying the fact that something that was once routine is now a frightening gamble and often a direct pathway to departure from friends, family, and job.
What they don’t convey as well is that the “routine” aspect applies only to a limited number of individuals; in some ways, the cream of the crop. Most of them are people who happened to have been caught up in the immigration system in the past and were specifically and individually deemed low priorities for deportation.
First, a bit of history. Immigration enforcement authorities in this country have rarely if ever received the amount of funding from Congress they’d like. So, they use “prosecutorial discretion” to pick and choose who to try to deport.
Past administrations focused on removing people who had criminal records or presented security risks. Lowest on the priority list were productive members of society who had lived here for a long time with no criminal records and who had family, community, church, employment, and other ties.
Deciding who is and who isn’t a high priority is not a casually made decision. In many cases, an undocumented immigrants who got arrested by ICE had to supply extensive documentary evidence of their U.S. ties and good character before ICE would agree to stop pressing forward with their case.
If successful, the undocumented person didn’t obtain the same rights as, say, a green card holder. They were put into a sort of limbo status. Efforts to remove them were put on hold, on the condition that they continue to keep up their high standards of behavior and check in with ICE on an annual basis. The threat of removal is and was always there.
So, it’s only minority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are required to check in with ICE. For Americans who advocate the deportation of every last immigrant in the U.S., the natural conclusion is, “Well, arresting them at their check-ins is at least a starting point.”
But immigration advocates point out the absurdity of Trump claiming that his administration would focus on deporting “bad hombres,” then turning around and deporting the people lowest on the enforcement priority list–the people who were already known to the authorities, and being tracked and monitored. For now, anyway. Because, as John Amaya, former deputy chief of staff at ICE under President Obama, told WNYC News, “I don’t think they want to be detaining individuals–bringing them in during the regular check-ins only to detain them and remove them–because then no one’s going to be reporting. . . It would be a huge burden, and I think that’s why we want to make sure people do report and trust law enforcement.”