The country’s top immigration enforcement officer says he is looking into charging sanctuary city leaders with violating federal anti-smuggling laws because he is fed up with local officials putting their communities and his officers at risk by releasing illegal immigrants from jail.
Thomas Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also told Americans to expect more work site enforcement targeting unscrupulous employers and more 287(g) agreements with willing police and sheriff’s departments that want to help get illegal immigrants off their streets. Eventually, he said, ICE will break the deportation records of 409,849 migrants set in 2012 under President Obama.
“I think 409,000 is a stretch this year, but if [the Justice Department] keeps going in the direction they’re going in, if we continue to expand our operational footprint, I think we’re going to get there,” he told The Washington Times. “Our interior arrests will go up. They’re going to top last year’s for sure.”
Mr. Homan is the spear tip of President Trump’s effort to step up immigration enforcement — perhaps the largest swing in attitude for any agency in government from the last administration to the current one.
Agents and officers have been unshackled from the limits imposed by Mr. Obama, whose rules restricted arrests to less than 20 percent of the estimated illegal immigrant population.
Now, most illegal immigrants are eligible for deportation, though Mr. Homan said serious criminals, recent border crossers and people who are actively defying deportation orders are still the agency’s priorities.
He said the biggest impediment to expanding deportations is no longer ICE priority, but rather a huge backlog in the immigration courts, which are part of the Justice Department. Migrants who in the past would have admitted their unauthorized status and accepted deportation are now fighting their cases.
“They can play the system for a long time,” he said.
That resistance extends well beyond the courtroom.
Migrants are increasingly refusing to open doors for his officers and, when they do, the encounters are turning violent, Mr. Homan said. Use-of-force instances are up about 150 percent, and assaults on ICE officers are up about 40 percent, he said.
Local officials are also pushing back, declaring themselves sanctuaries and enacting policies that block their law enforcement officers from cooperating with ICE.
The refusals range from declining to hold migrants beyond their regular release time to refusing all communication — even notifying ICE when a criminal deportable alien is about to be released into the community.
For Mr. Homan, who came up through the ranks of the Border Patrol and then ICE as a sworn law enforcement officer, that sort of resistance is enraging.
“Shame on people that want to put politics ahead of officer safety, community safety,” he said.
Sanctuaries say that cooperating with ICE frightens immigrants — both legal and illegal — and makes them less likely to report other crimes. They say that is a bigger threat to public safety than crimes committed by illegal immigrants.
Solid data are tough to come by, though some police chiefs say they have been able to calculate drops in crime reporting among Hispanics since Mr. Trump took office, and they blame his get-tough approach to illegal immigration.
ICE is also facing headwinds in the courts. One judge this week halted efforts to deport Iraqi migrants who have been convicted of serious crimes and have been ordered deported, but who now say as Christians they fear for their lives if sent back to their home country.
The judge faulted the U.S. for not being able to guarantee that the deportees won’t end up in territory controlled by Islamic State terrorists, who routinely execute Christians.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week issued a ruling that law enforcement cannot hold migrants for pickup by ICE beyond their normal release times. That effectively forbids police from complying with detainer requests, which ask local authorities to hold targets for up to 48 hours.
Mr. Homan said one officer in a jail can process 10 people a day, but once someone is released, it takes a whole team of officers to track down and arrest the person in the community — where interaction is more dangerous for all sides.
That has helped fuel the spike in violent encounters that Mr. Homan highlighted in the interview.
“When we knock on doors, as any law enforcement officer will tell you, it’s risky, it’s dangerous. Compare that to arresting someone in the jail, when you know they don’t have weapons in the jail,” he said.
“It’s a matter of time before one of my officers is seriously hurt or doesn’t go home because someone made a political decision on the backs of my officers,” he said.
But he said he won’t be chased out of “sanctuaries” and pointedly raised a section of federal code — 8 U.S.C. 1324 — that outlaws attempts to “conceal, harbor or shield” illegal immigrants.
“I think these sanctuary cities need to make sure they’re on the right side of the law. They need to look at this. Because I am,” he said.
Asked whether that means he will recommend prosecutions, he said, “We’re looking at what options we have.”
The law carries a penalty of five years in prison in most cases, but penalties could rise to include life in prison or even death if someone is killed during the crime.
Mr. Homan said refusing to cooperate is counterproductive for sanctuary cities, whose goal is to protect illegal immigrants from deportation. He said if his agents have to knock on doors in the community, then thy are likely to encounter still more illegal immigrants to round up.
“If I arrest a bad guy in the jail, I arrest him. But if I go to his home or his place of employment and arrest the bad guy, and there’s five guys with him? They’re going to come too,” the chief said.
Indeed, those kinds of arrests have stirred anger among advocacy groups, which say “collateral” arrests are hurting immigrant communities.
Not all communities are resisting.
Mr. Homan said the number of police and sheriff’s departments signed up for the 287(g) program allowing them to help process illegal immigrants for deportation from their jails has already doubled under Mr. Trump and should triple by the end of the year.
He said he also has received inquiries from departments that want to restore 287(g) task forces, which would train state and local police to enforce immigration laws on the streets. Mr. Homan said he is studying that possibility.
Mr. Homan has become a target for immigrant rights groups — particularly after the ICE chief linked this weekend’s horrific deaths of 10 migrants at the hands of smugglers to sanctuary cities.
“Dishonest and disgusting,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund. “This country deserves an immigration debate that connects the dots between development and opportunity in home countries, safe and legal migration policies, and intelligent immigrant integration policies. What it doesn’t need are hard-liners shamelessly politicizing a tragedy.”
Mr. Homan, who led the investigation into an even worse 2003 incident in which 19 migrants died in a trailer in Victoria, Texas, said the solution is to enforce the laws and persuade people not to make the dangerous journey in the first place.
His agency has even begun arresting parents who pay smugglers to bring their children on the dangerous journey to the U.S. Mr. Homan said it was too early to talk about numbers for that operation.
But he challenged his critics to see what he sees.
“People who don’t think we should enforce immigration law — I wish they’d hang out with me for a week,” Mr. Homan said. “I wish they were with me in Phoenix, Arizona — people held hostage. A guy with duct tape all over his body, with a hole poked out in his mouth where he breathed through a straw for days, until they paid his fee. They weren’t with me on the trail in the Border Patrol where we found dead aliens abandoned by smugglers. They weren’t with me standing in the back of that traffic trailer with a 5-year-old boy who suffocated in his father’s arms.”