Homeland Security netted more than 680 immigrants last week in the first major series of raids since President Trump took office, sparking a feverish response from advocates who said agents went after rank-and-file migrants whom the Obama administration had considered off limits.
Secretary John F. Kelly insisted that the raids were standard procedure and said they focused on those with criminal records, just like agents did under President Obama. Most of the rest were fugitives who were ignoring deportation orders or had already been deported and managed to sneak back into the U.S. — also priorities under Mr. Obama.
But activists reacted with horror, urging boycotts and rallies and saying a “campaign of terror” has descended on their communities.
They hoped to bloody the administration’s nose by trying to force a change in course before Mr. Trump can step up his deportation efforts.
“This is a new day. This is the deportation force that he has been threatening since the campaign,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
The raids targeted five regions, with the most arrests in the Midwest. Of the 235 arrested in that region, 163 had criminal records, 12 were violating deportation orders and 60 had been deported at least once before, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“President Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of DHS in protecting the nation and directed our department to focus on removing illegal aliens who have violated our immigration laws, with a specific focus on those who pose a threat to public safety, have been charged with criminal offenses, have committed immigration violations or have been deported and re-entered the country illegally,” Mr. Kelly said.
He said the crimes committed by those they apprehended included murder, child sex abuse, drug trafficking and drunken driving.
Activists had been poised to strike ever since the president issued executive orders last month to overhaul enforcement. He canceled Obama administration policies that had directed agents to target only a small percentage of illegal immigrants: those with serious criminal records or recent arrivals.
Instead, Mr. Trump listed priorities that target many more immigrants. Among his priorities are immigrants charged with crimes, those who have engaged in fraud with the government, and those who have agreed to leave the country.
ICE officials said the new priorities had nothing to do with last week’s operations, which they said were planned before Mr. Trump took office.
Mr. Trump complicated those claims, saying that the raids were, in fact, the first steps to meet his campaign promises.
“I said we would get the criminals out, the drug lords, the gang members, we’re getting them out,” he said at a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He predicted that everyone eventually would be pleased with his solution and said “a lot of people are very, very happy right now.”
Activists were outraged. They pointed to the case of a mother in Arizona, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who came to the U.S. from Mexico two decades ago at age 14, and who was nabbed by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2009. The Obama administration declined to deport her and instead had her regularly check in with authorities.
But last week she was called in, arrested and processed for deportation. Activist groups sprang to action, blockading the van they thought was carrying her. ICE eventually did deport her.
Advocates said her case showed that the Trump administration was changing tactics, targeting non-criminal illegal immigrants whom Mr. Obama had protected. They fear much worse is ahead and said the protests are designed to show they will not stand silent.
“It’s the first 100 days. The president has his inauguration, he had his campaign, he made his promises. Now the people have to stand up, we need to say what we want, how we want the country run,” said Emma Lozano, pastor of Lincoln United Methodist Church in Chicago, who was organizing a rally there Monday afternoon.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, fired off a letter demanding answers.
“Targeting law-abiding innocent immigrant families whose only wrongdoing was crossing the border to give their children a better life, instead of focusing on removing those who have been convicted of violent crimes, is a waste of limited resources and undermines law enforcement in communities across the country,” he said. “ICE must come clean.”
Security analysts, though, said the complaints were far out of proportion to the level of activity.
“Part of this is a calculation — a desire to make as big a fuss as possible to try to limit future enforcement. But part of it is genuine surprise because a lot of these activist groups got used to eight years of non-enforcement under Obama,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
“Trump really is, so far, just a return to normalcy in immigration enforcement. It was Obama that was the radical break,” Mr. Krikorian said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the actions were planned well in advance of Mr. Trump’s inauguration and were similar to actions taken under Mr. Obama.
The operation focused on five regions, netting 190 in Georgia and the Carolinas, another 235 in the Midwest, 161 in the Los Angeles region, 41 in New York and 28 around San Antonio. Of those, 495 had criminal records, 29 were ignoring deportation orders and another 89 had been deported before and managed to sneak back into the country.
The operations last week nabbed less than a third of the number arrested in March 2015, half the number caught in August 2013 and a quarter of the more than 3,100 arrests in an April 2012 operation, ICE said.
Activists warned of reports of checkpoints set up to try to spot illegal immigrants in the Southeast, saying they had received calls on their hotline.
ICE denied those reports, saying that is not how the agency works and chastising the groups for spreading false fears.
“Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support,” the agency said in a statement.
The advocates said they are trying to find attorneys and are advising immigrants not to open doors to agents who don’t have warrants.
A year ago, the same activists were furious at Mr. Obama after a series of raids to arrest illegal immigrants who were part of the surge from Central America. Those raids nabbed 121 migrants who crossed the border after May 1, 2014, and who had exhausted their appeals and been given final deportation orders.
Those raids were overseen by Sarah Saldana, ICE director at the time, and Thomas Homan, who led ICE’s enforcement division and is now acting director of the agency.