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During a visit to Detroit in March, John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, took some time to explain President Trump’s deportation plans to wary community leaders and immigrant advocates. After several tense meetings, he came out to speak to the press. “We’ve got to do something,” Kelly said, with a note of frustration. “We’re almost at a crisis right now because you have 11 million people in America that are below the radar. Most of them are not bad people to say the least. Some of them are. We’re after the ones, the worst of the worst, if you will. But I can’t ignore the law.”
Kelly was giving a tempered version of statements Trump had made in the first weeks of his administration, which were significantly revised from his campaign promise that, starting on “day one,” he would deport millions of immigrants who were in the country illegally. Once he was in the White House, Trump narrowed his aim, at least in his rhetoric, to “criminal aliens.” In his speech to Congress on February 28, the president said, “As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak.”
But what has this meant in practice? Since the first days of the Trump administration, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, has been conducting what it calls targeted enforcement operations around the country. About 680 people were picked up during five days in February in coordinated actions in five cities. In March ICE announced at least 729 arrests in operations ranging from Virginia and Delaware to Oklahoma, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest. Local news reports of smaller actions appear daily. The agency said that those detained included many immigrants convicted of serious crimes, such as aggravated assault, spousal battery, and sex offenses with minors. ICE does not publish the names, citing privacy restrictions, so its claims about criminal histories cannot be easily verified.
However, many of the people who have been rounded up do not appear to fit into the categories of malicious lawbreakers described by Trump and his homeland security secretary. For example, according to the Austin American-Statesman, out of fifty-one people arrested in that Texas city during the enforcement operations in February, twenty-eight had no criminal records but had “built quiet lives and stayed out of trouble.” ICE has not publicized the cases of immigrants—probably many thousands—who have been summoned to report to its offices because of past immigration violations and are now in the process of deportation.
While these operations drew attention…
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