Although it is difficult to get exact numbers, some estimates show Immigration and Customs Enforcement home raids have never resulted in more than 30,000 apprehensions in any given year. At that rate, it could take 366 years for immigration agents to remove all 11 million undocumented migrants using home raids.
I contend immigration raids are not intended to deport large numbers of people. Instead, my research has shown that they are primarily effective in spreading fear among immigrants.
On Jan. 25, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order promising to increase the number of ICE agents from 5,000 to 15,000. If enacted, this expansion could increase the number of these apprehensions to 90,000 a year.
The ICE agents who conduct home raids are charged with detaining and deporting criminal aliens and fugitive aliens. A fugitive alien is a noncitizen who failed to appear in immigration court. A criminal alien is any noncitizen convicted of a crime. In many cases, these raids result in the detention and sometimes deportation of immigrants who are neither criminal nor fugitive aliens – these are what ICE calls “collateral arrests.”
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, immigration home raids were commonplace. Over the course of the Obama administration, ICE agents gradually began to exercise more discretion. Importantly, they stopped making collateral arrests.
During the first two years of the Obama administration, I interviewed 147 people who had been deported. The current wave of raids under the Trump administration hearken back to that time. Meeting some of the people affected by home raids then can help us understand how people are being targeted today.
Melvin: Criminal alien
Melvin moved to the United States in 1986, when he was 18 years old. He came to join his father, who had left him in Guatemala when he was a small child.
(Melvin, like the other names used in this piece, is a pseudonym. The University of California ethical guidelines require me to protect the identity of deportees I interviewed.)
Melvin apprenticed in the flooring business and eventually opened up his own shop. After a decade, he was bringing in US$15,000 a month and he, his wife and their two children lived comfortably in northern Virginia.
Melvin had run into trouble with the law in 1995, when he was charged with involuntary manslaughter and hit-and-run after he hit a dead body on the highway. He said he drove away because he was scared – a decision he acknowledges was poor. The manslaughter charge was dropped when forensics revealed the body was already dead when Melvin ran over it, but Melvin still served a year for the hit and run.
In 2005, immigration agents arrived at Melvin’s door. Melvin was reading a book to his son when his wife answered the door. Melvin explained what happened next:
“They actually had to pull a gun on her because she was getting aggressive and, said ‘So, you’re gonna leave me with my kids here? He’s the head of the house. You’re gonna take him?… They said, 'I’m sorry. We’re just doing our job.’”
A legal permanent resident of the United States, Melvin spent $15,000 on legal representation, but to no avail: He served several months in immigration detention, and then ICE sent him back to Guatemala. His wife and children sold everything and joined him.
Unfortunately, the upheaval involved in moving to a new country put stress on their marriage. After about a year and a half, they divorced, and Melvin’s wife came back to the U.S. with the kids. She works in a gas station and lives with her mother now, a far cry from the five-bedroom home she and Melvin once shared.
Vern: Fugitive alien
In 1991, when he was 20 years old, Vern left Guatemala for the United States, where he applied for political asylum. Back home, he had received death threats for attempting to organize a union. The Immigration and Naturalization Service issued him a work permit while his case was being processed, and he began to work in a frozen food plant in Ohio.
He married a Honduran woman, Maria, who was also applying for political asylum. They received work permits every year for seven years, which allowed them to continue working legally. Their first child was born in 1996.
In 1998, Vern received a notice from the Immigration and Naturalization Service stating that he should leave the United States – his asylum application had been denied. Vern was devastated. He had established a life in the United States, and he had few ties to Guatemala. He decided to stay, in the hope that his wife’s application would be approved and she could apply to legalize his status. They had another child.
Vern did everything he could to avoid problems with the police – he never drank and followed the law at all times. He learned English and tried to blend in as much as possible.
One Sunday morning, as the family was preparing for church, Vern heard a loud knock at the door.
“They called from outside: ‘Maria Lopez, this is immigration. We need to talk to you.’ Maria didn’t have nothing to fear, so she went down. They asked, ‘Does your husband live here?’
When Vern appeared, ICE agents handcuffed him and put him in their car. His wife and two children were devastated as they watched Vern being taken away. Because Vern had already been ordered deported, he was not given the opportunity to explain to a judge why he had not followed his deportation order. Eight days later, Vern was deported to Guatemala.
Maria had to figure out how to get by with her minimum-wage job. Vern had to learn to readjust to Guatemala City – which he had left 18 years earlier.
Maximo: Collateral arrest
A Dominican citizen who lived in Puerto Rico, Maximo shared an apartment in San Juan with two other men – a Venezuelan and a Puerto Rican. One morning in 2010, they heard banging on the door. Maximo tried to sleep through it, but the banging got louder. Finally, he got up to answer the door.
Just before he reached the door, the people knocking decided to break it down. Maximo found himself surrounded by several armed officers, some wearing "ICE” jackets. The agents didn’t indicate that they had a warrant for the arrest of a specific person. Instead, they demanded to see all occupants of the house, pointed guns at them and ordered them to sit on the floor. When they asked Maximo for identification, he gave them his Dominican passport. They asked if he was in the country illegally, and he said he was.
Maximo was arrested and taken to an immigration detention center. He signed a voluntary departure form and was deported to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic two days later. A voluntary departure allowed Maximo to be deported quickly. He could have asked for an immigration hearing, but he would have had to spend months in detention awaiting his hearing, and his chances of gaining legalization were slim.
Although Maximo was undocumented, he had constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and those rights were violated. Law enforcement agents have the authority to break down your door if they have a search warrant and you do not open the door. However, immigration agents almost never have search warrants. The warrants they secure are administrative warrants that do not permit them to enter houses without the consent of the occupants.
Home raids tend to happen early in the morning to ensure the targets are home. In many cases, this means that these raids happen when the whole family is home and children have to watch their parent forcibly removed from the home. In some cases, these children will never see their parent again.
I believe these raids are an ineffective means of immigration law enforcement, yet are effective at spreading fear and tearing families apart.