Deportation officers moved into communities in a summertime surge to catch undocumented immigrants, netting more than 2,000 people they said were responsible for victimizing more than 1,900 people in their neighborhoods.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Tuesday they specifically targeted migrants accused or convicted of crimes with victims, and 85% of those arrested had convictions or criminal charges pending.
The operation comes as ICE is under fire from Democratic critics and immigrant rights advocates who say the agency is too aggressive in pursuing its mission and is scaring immigrant communities.
But agency leaders said the arrests show they are targeting bad actors who are victimizing those same immigrant communities, taking their tormenters off the streets.
“We are talking crimes like murder, sexual assault, domestic violence, hit and run, kidnapping, identity theft — you get the point. These are crimes that have victims associated with them,” said Henry Lucero, executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations at ICE.
He said officers started out looking for migrants with domestic violence charges on their records amid coronavirus shutdown orders, figuring they were a particular danger. But after they started the operation, they expanded it to other crimes with victims.
ICE said 42 of those arrested were nabbed in the Washington area, 27 of whom had convictions and three more who had charges pending.
One was Edwin Nahun Mendoza-Santos, a 38-year-old Honduran man arrested by ICE officers in Alexandria, Virginia. He was wanted by Stafford County on a warrant for sexual battery of a child less than 13 years of age.
Arrested in Hyattsville was Manuel De Jesus Rodriguez-Esperanza, 27, who was wanted in his home country of El Salvador for aggravated homicide charges. He had been ordered deported in 2016, and Interpol had issued a Red Notice alerting global police that he was wanted in El Salvador.
Nationwide, ICE said, those arrested had 388 assault convictions and 386 additional assault charges pending; 291 domestic violence convictions and 216 pending domestic violence charges; and 71 sexual offense convictions against minors, and 40 more pending charges.
ICE dramatically curtailed its community arrests when the pandemic began, seeking to shrink the population of its detention centers and to limit engagements to prevent spread of COVID-19.
But beginning in mid-July the agency began the targeted operation.
Mr. Lucero said other arrests were made during the period from July 13 to Aug. 20 that weren’t part of the operation. The overall number of arrests was lower than in nonpandemic times, he said.
Making arrests during the coronavirus does bring new challenges, Mr. Lucero said.
ICE officers show up with N95 masks, goggles, face shields and gloves — and provide protective equipment to those they arrest, too.
Mr. Lucero said the operation spanned the country, though he said the most arrests came in the Los Angeles area.
Just as the operation was concluding last month, the Los Angeles sheriff announced a new policy refusing all cooperation in turning over people in his jails to ICE. He said undocumented immigrants feared coming forward to report crimes because they are scared of being deported.
Mr. Lucero bristled at that claim on Tuesday, saying ICE takes “a victim-centered approach,” protecting them. He said there are even legal visas, with a pathway to citizenship, available for some undocumented immigrant victims.
“The result of this operation has made many victims feel more safe now that these perpetrators are not going back to their communities,” he said.