Julio Cortez/AP Images

Catalino Guerrero (center), a New Jersey resident who is facing possible deportation to Mexico, with Senator Robert Menendez and Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, at a rally before an immigration hearing, Newark, March 2017

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 in the press, in some ways ICE was not acting very differently than it had under President Obama, who oversaw more than three million deportations during his eight years in office. In his first term, Obama, seeking to establish his credibility as a tough enforcer, implemented a nationwide fingerprint system to check the immigration status of anyone booked by police. Deportations soared, reaching more than 434,000 in 2013. Obama had hoped that his enforcement record would help convince Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants.

But in his second term, once it was clear that Obama would not be able to get support from Republicans for any broad legalization measure, he worked to restrain the deportations machine his administration had created. He directed ICE agents to focus closely on convicted criminals and recent illegal border crossers, and discouraged them from tearing apart families solely because of immigration offenses, which generally are civil, not criminal, violations. The number of deportations from inside the country (not at the border) declined significantly in his final years in office. Now Trump, with his executive orders and his ominous warnings about the dangers “illegals” pose for Americans, is eliminating Obama’s restraints and spurring agents to use the tools they have to deport as many people as possible.

Consider the case of Catalino Guerrero. By the time he received a summons to appear on February 8 at the Newark offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he had been living in the United States for twenty-five years. Originally from the Mexican state of Puebla, Guerrero, now fifty-nine, has been continuously employed in this country since 1992, mainly as a dispatcher at warehouses near his home in Union City, New Jersey. Throughout that time, except for one brief suspension, he has held valid federal work permits. He has a legitimate Social Security number and has paid taxes by paycheck deductions.


Over time his wife and four children came from Mexico to join him, and he has five grandchildren, all American citizens. Guerrero is the mild-spoken patriarch of a clan that has gravitated around a modest duplex row house, which he purchased with a bank mortgage in 2004. A churchgoing Catholic, Guerrero fortified the spiritual protections around his family by keeping an altar in the corner of his cramped living room with the Virgin of Guadalupe, Our Lord of Chalma, and several more figures revered by Mexicans.

Guerrero has no police record. His problem is that his work permits were issued based on an application for political asylum that a notario, an accountant not qualified to practice law, had filed, he says, without telling him—a common immigration scam in the 1990s. It took until 2010 for the asylum claim, for which he was never eligible, to fail definitively in immigration court. One day not long thereafter he received a notice that a judge had ordered him to be deported. Stricken with worry, he had a stroke, its effects soon compounded by acute episodes of diabetes.

Three times during the Obama administration, agents from ICE came for Guerrero and told him to get ready to leave for Mexico. But local advocates rallied to defend him and found lawyers to petition to have his deportation stayed. As happened with increasing frequency during Obama’s last years, officials considered his clean record, his consistent employment, his tax payments, his community ties, and his medical condition, and they decided to suspend the deportation, placing him under an order of supervision that required him to stay out of trouble and check in with ICE once a year.

But after Trump made it a point in his campaign to vilify Mexicans as rapists and traffickers, Guerrero knew the February meeting with ICE would be different. Indeed, he was accused, erroneously, of failing to show up for his check-ins. He was ordered to report again on March 10, ready to be detained. Among several dozen people who stood in a downpour of sleet outside the ICE offices that day to protest Guerrero’s threatened deportation were Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Guerrero, who had difficulty walking on his own but was steadied by his children, asked for another stay. He was granted no relief and told to report again in May. The debilitating uncertainty continues, not only for him but for two of his children, who have no legal status, and for their families.

Other cases also seemed at odds with Kelly’s claim that the administration is targeting “the worst of the worst.” Roberto Beristain, the forty-three-year-old Mexican owner of a busy steakhouse in Granger, Indiana, had no criminal history but had long been in the country illegally and in 2000 was ordered by an immigration court to leave. In February, with no warning, ICE canceled his long-standing order of supervision and he was rushed into deportation. His stunned wife, Helen, an American citizen, admitted that she had voted for Trump, based on his pledge to deport “bad hombres.” Instead, she protested to the South Bend Tribune, “it’s regular people” Trump is deporting.

Seeking to quell the rising furor caused by the arrests, Secretary Kelly insisted there would be “no—repeat, no—mass deportations.” By that he seemed to mean that agents would not randomly storm factories, run dragnets through immigrant neighborhoods, or haul people away from checkpoints, tactics that in any event would likely be challenged as unconstitutional. Indeed, at the current pace, the Department of Homeland Security will not come close to the three million deportations Trump promised for his first year in office.

But while the actual numbers remain unclear, there is no doubt that Trump’s demonization of immigrants is driving a widening crackdown. ICE is moving much faster and more aggressively than it did during the Obama years. Agents who chafed under Obama now feel unchained. In California, ICE actions at courthouses prompted the state’s chief justice, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, to demand in a letter on March 16 that agents stop “stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.” Secretary Kelly responded that the courthouse arrests would continue. Reports described many immigrants being detained while dropping off their children at school. In Fort Worth, Texas, ICE agents arrested twenty-six immigrants who turned up for a work detail at the county sheriff’s office, complying with sentences for low-level offenses.

The effects of the push for deportations have been far-reaching. In many cities and towns, immigrants say they feel besieged and are retreating from public life. In their communities, shopping has ebbed and church attendance has dropped. Legal clinics are packed. Mexicans have crowded into their consulates to update passports for themselves and their Mexican-born children, so that they will not be separated in the event they have to leave the United States in a hurry. Israel Rocha, the chief executive of the New York City hospital in Elmhurst, Queens, said immigrants were staying away from its facilities. “People leave their loved ones in the emergency room and run away,” he said at a public meeting in the hospital.


Trump’s homeland security secretary has at times seemed surprised by the level of alarm. A retired four-star Marine general who came from an exemplary forty-five-year career in the military, not law enforcement, Kelly says his agents are only following the law. “You have to remember…we don’t deport anybody,” he said in Detroit, an assertion that startled his listeners. “American law deports people,” he explained. “And once these people, illegals, for whatever reason, go into the system,” Kelly said, “they have all of the protections, typical, all American protections. It’s the law that deports them.”

Kelly’s statements misrepresent the nature and practice of immigration law. It is a rigid code with few gradations of punishment, regardless of the offense, short of the severe penalty of deportation. But in enforcing those statutes ICE agents are given broad leeway to exercise their own judgment, what is known in legal terms as prosecutorial discretion. Trump’s executive orders in January provide virtually unrestricted authority to enforcement agents, while expanding the category of people who should be targeted for deportation to include anyone without papers. “Many aliens” without legal status are “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” one order warns. Agents should deport immigrants convicted of or even charged with “any criminal offense”; immigrants who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”; and, finally, immigrants who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.” In other words, carte blanche. A fast-track procedure that eliminates any opportunity for a hearing in immigration court was expanded to apply nationwide to undocumented foreigners who have been in the United States less than two years. By the plain letter of the orders, many immigrants will not have “all American protections.”

Trump has said that the enforcement offensive is necessary to expel outlaws who have been pouring across the Mexican border. But illegal border crossings overall have fallen sharply since 2000, even with the surge of migrants from Central America since 2014. Also, most undocumented immigrants didn’t come here recently; they are part of settled families. According to the Pew Research Center, two thirds of those immigrants have lived in the United States for ten years or more; among those from Mexico, 78 percent have been here for at least a decade. Many are in mixed families that include citizens or legal immigrants; about 4.1 million American children are citizens who have at least one undocumented parent, the Migration Policy Institute has reported. As ICE deports more people like Catalino Guerrero—people who are integrated into American society and whom the public doesn’t recognize as “bad ones”—Trump’s campaign has begun to look like an attack on entire communities.

Luis Zayas, the dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, described in his recent book Forgotten Citizens (2015) some of the effects Trump’s campaign could have on American children with Mexican parents who face deportation. As United States citizens, the children could not be touched by ICE. But the parents were confronted with terrible choices: either to leave their children behind with one parent or a relative or even in foster care, or to take them as exiles, in effect, to reduced lives in Mexico.

After the loss of a breadwinner, the families reeled, their stability shattered and their income falling, forcing the remaining parent to work longer hours and give less time to bereft children. In many households meals were no longer regular. A five-year-old named Virginia remained mute day after day in kindergarten after her father was arrested. A boy named Cesar, who was ten, said he was “meaner” in school after his father was deported. Even though the father managed to sneak back across the border to their Texas home, while he was gone Cesar picked fights and disrupted classes, then sank into depression. “Gray” was how Cesar saw his home after his father was taken away. “Like everything was, um…bad feelings were around. Like sadness or pain…anger.”

American children uprooted by the expulsion of parents felt desperately disoriented in Mexico. Zayas saw “despair” in nine-year-old Lupita, living in Oaxaca after her mother voluntarily left their home in San Diego to preempt a deportation. “Well, I am very unhappy,” Lupita said between sobs, “because they cannot stay there and I want to be there.” Even in homes where deportation was only a possibility, it permeated the children’s lives. “The fear creeps into nearly every waking moment and they are made to feel illegitimate and flawed,” Zayas found.

In late March, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who as a Republican senator from Alabama was a tireless critic of Obama’s enforcement strategy, announced that the Justice Department would reinforce ICE’s operations by retaliating against so-called sanctuary states and cities that restrict their cooperation with ICE agents. Sessions said that the Justice Department would deny federal grants to police in recalcitrant jurisdictions. Citing no data, Sessions, speaking at the White House press briefing on March 27, accused those places of complicity in deaths of their residents. “Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended,” he said.

ICE also published the first of what it said would be regular lists of instances when police departments and county jails had declined to honor ICE requests to hold immigrants while federal agents came to arrest them. This shaming list named 118 uncooperative jurisdictions. But it included many places—like Erie County, Pennsylvania; Sarpy County, Nebraska; Ida County, Iowa—that were hardly liberal strongholds. Despite Sessions’s implication, most places on the list, and almost all police departments and sheriffs in the country, have been willingly meeting basic legal requirements to share information about the identity of foreigners they are holding.

However, many of the jurisdictions that were called out had simply complied with recent federal court rulings that determined that ICE’s detainers, as its requests are known, are not a constitutional basis to hold anyone. Local authorities told ICE that they wanted to see warrants before placing extra holds on people in their custody. On April 10, after the first list drew irate complaints from police chiefs and sheriffs that they were unfairly included, ICE temporarily suspended publication of new lists.

Nonetheless, the real point of Sessions’s threat seemed to be to get the media to increase pressure on cities and states that want to remain welcoming to immigrants, including undocumented people who are not criminals. On April 11, the attorney general issued new guidelines to all federal prosecutors, instructing them to make it a priority to bring felony criminal charges whenever possible in immigration cases. The administration is charging toward a confrontation with local governments and police departments. On April 21, the Justice Department sent warning letters to nine jurisdictions, among them New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Miami, and the California prison system.

Many of those places are ready to fight. Their governments have passed ordinances and resolutions encouraging immigrants to feel at home and allowing police to work with ICE only to detain foreigners convicted of violent or other serious crimes. At a recent strategy session in New York City, the speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, said, “I’m hoping we are going to become this administration’s worst nightmare.” Trump lost a round on April 25 when a federal judge, acting in lawsuits by San Francisco and Santa Clara County, temporarily halted the president’s executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from places that limit cooperation with ICE.

The potential for unrest in this clash was evident at a town hall–style meeting about the government’s immigration policy that took place on March 28 in an echoing gymnasium in Sacramento, California. It was called by the county sheriff, Scott Jones, who invited Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, to clarify what he called misinformation about his department’s cooperation with the immigration agency.

From the first minutes, furious protesters drowned out the speakers with jeers. Sheriff Jones said his deputies were not involved in immigration patrolling on the streets. “We have never, and never will enforce immigration law in our community,” he said. But, he said, to a crescendo of boos, his department does allow ICE into county jails. “There are very bad actors in every community, also including the undocumented community,” the sheriff said.

Homan said ICE did not make arrests at churches, schools, or hospitals. “You’re ripping away parents from their children,” a protester yelled. Both the Sacramento mayor, Darrell Steinberg, and the leader of the California Senate, Kevin de León, were there and sided with the protesters. Finally, the sheriff ordered several protesters to be removed by his officers.

Homan did not back down. “Let’s be clear on one thing,” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “ICE isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to enforce the law across the country.”

The wide reach of Trump’s clampdown, and his attempts to limit refugees and ban travel from some Muslim-majority countries, have mobilized immigrants’ rights groups and brought them new support from women, African-Americans, and religious groups. Some churches have offered to open their doors to provide actual sanctuary as a last recourse for immigrants to avoid deportation. But in practice there is little that can ultimately be done to stop federal agents determined to deport foreign-born people who are in violation of immigration law. And the deportations are just beginning. For example, agents have only begun to expel more than 900,000 people who, like Catalino Guerrero, have old orders of deportation from a judge.

There are longer-term costs to Trump’s policies, which will force undocumented immigrants to retreat further from civic life. Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, discovered some of these costs when he followed about 150 young undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles over fourteen years as they became adults. As he reports in his book Lives in Limbo (2015), as many as two million immigrants without papers are younger people who have lived in the United States since they were children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded about 770,000 of those youths, is one Obama administration initiative for undocumented immigrants that Trump so far has not canceled. But for most of the immigrants Gonzales followed, DACA came too late and offered too little.

Gonzales found that the experiences of many of these young people were depressing inversions of the familiar immigrant narrative of success. They began with high American aspirations during their school years, only to stall and then slide downward as they grew up and encountered the many challenges of illegal status. Some finished college, and many did not, but before long it didn’t matter. Their progress was stunted; their hopes were painfully unrealized. “Years of grueling work, heartbreak and disappointment, and exclusion from opportunities that could have helped them get ahead have worn down their spirits,” Gonzales wrote.

By threatening young people like these and their families, Trump’s deportations are creating an extraordinary rupture in their connections to the society around them, postponing and perhaps blocking the ascent that immigrants for generations before them have accomplished.

—April 26, 2017