By NICHOLAS KULISH, CAITLIN DICKERSON and RON NIXON
In Virginia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waited outside a church shelter where undocumented immigrants had gone to stay warm. In Texas and in Colorado, agents went into courthouses, looking for foreigners who had arrived for hearings on other matters.
At Kennedy International Airport in New York, passengers arriving after a five-hour flight from San Francisco were asked to show their documents before they were allowed to get off the plane.
The Trump administration’s far-reaching plan to arrest and deport vast numbers of undocumented immigrants has been introduced in dramatic fashion over the past month. And much of that task has fallen to thousands of ICE officers who are newly emboldened, newly empowered and already getting to work.
Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals. In Southern California, in one of the first major roundups during the Trump administration, officers detained 161 people with a wide range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, and 10 who had no criminal history at all.
“Before, we used to be told, ‘You can’t arrest those people,’ and we’d be disciplined for being insubordinate if we did,” said a 10-year veteran of the agency who took part in the operation. “Now those people are priorities again. And there are a lot of them here.”
Interviews with 17 agents and officials across the country, including in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California, demonstrated how quickly a new atmosphere in the agency had taken hold. Since they are forbidden to talk to the press, they requested anonymity out of concern for losing their jobs.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents, an expression the officers themselves used time and again in interviews to describe their newfound freedom.
“Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents said in a joint statement after President Trump issued the executive orders on immigration late last month.
Two memos released this past week by the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of ICE and the Border Patrol, provided more details about how it would carry out its plan, which includes Mr. Trump’s signature campaign pledge — a wall along the entire southern border — as well as speedier deportations and greater reliance on local police officers.
But for those with ICE badges, perhaps the biggest change was the erasing of the Obama administration’s hierarchy of priorities, which forced agents to concentrate on deporting gang members and other violent and serious criminals, and mostly leave everyone else alone.
A whirlwind of activity has overtaken ICE headquarters in Washington in recent weeks, with employees attending back-to-back meetings about how to quickly carry out President Trump’s plans. “Some people are like: ‘This is great. Let’s give them all the tools they need,’” said a senior staff member at headquarters, who joined the department under the administration of George W. Bush.
But, the official added, “other people are a little bit more hesitant and fearful about how quickly things are moving.”
Two officials in Washington said that the shift — and the new enthusiasm that has come with it — seems to have encouraged pro-Trump political comments and banter that struck the officials as brazen or gung-ho, like remarks about their jobs becoming “fun.” Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced, the officials said.
ICE has more than 20,000 employees, spread across 400 offices in the United States and 46 foreign countries, and the Trump administration has called for the hiring of 10,000 more. ICE officers see themselves as protecting the country and enforcing its laws, but also, several agents said, defending the legal immigration system, with its yearslong waits to enter the country, from people who skip the line.
John F. Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement after the first large-scale roundups of the Trump administration: “President Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of D.H.S. in protecting the nation.”
“There is no greater calling than to serve and protect our nation,” he added, “a mission that the men and women of ICE perform with professionalism and courage every single day.”
Agents are, in fact, predominantly male and have often served in the military, with a police department or both. New agents take a five-week Spanish language program as well as firearms training; they also learn driving maneuvers and have to pass seven written examinations and a physical-fitness test that includes an obstacle course.
The element of surprise is central to their work, and the sight of even a single white van emblazoned with the words Department of Homeland Security can create fear and cause people to flee. To minimize public contact, the arrests are frequently made in the early morning hours.
A supervisor in Northern California described a typical operation, with teams of at least five members rising before dawn, meeting as early as 4 a.m. to make arrests before their targets depart for work. To avoid distressing families and children, the agents prefer to apprehend people outside their homes, approaching them as soon as they step onto a public sidewalk and, once identified, placing them in handcuffs.
But arrests can appear dramatic, as agents arrive in large numbers, armed with semiautomatic handguns and wearing dark bulletproof vests with ICE in bright white letters on them. When they do have to enter a home, officers knock loudly and announce themselves as the police, a term they can legally use. Many times, children are awakened in the process, and watch as a parent is taken away.
Some of the more visible ICE operations in recent weeks have ricocheted around the internet, and sometimes drawn a backlash. At Kennedy Airport, Customs and Border Protection agents checked documents of passengers getting off a flight from San Francisco because ICE, a sister agency, thought a person with a deportation order might be on the plane. They did not find the person they were looking for.
After the arrests outside the church in Alexandria, Va., Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, wrote a letter to Mr. Kelly, saying the action “raises a concern that, unlike previous actions, ICE agents are detaining Virginia residents without cause or specific allegations of criminal activity.”
Bystanders are now being taken in if they are suspected to be undocumented, even if they have committed no crime, known within the agency as “collateral” arrests. While these arrests occurred under the Obama administration, they were officially discouraged, to the frustration of many agents. “Which part of illegal don’t people understand?” an agent in Arizona asked.
But officers said their work had become more political than ever, and they bristled at what they considered stereotypes of indiscriminate enforcers who want to sweep grandmothers off the street or separate families.
Perhaps their biggest challenge, said the supervisor in California, is the agency’s steadily deteriorating relationship with other law enforcement agencies, especially in liberal-leaning cities that have vowed to protect immigrants from deportation, known as sanctuary cities.
In one city alone, the supervisor said, the police once transferred 35 undocumented immigrants a day into federal custody, compared with roughly five per week during the final years of the Obama presidency.
On Thursday, Los Angeles, a sanctuary city, asked that ICE agents stop calling themselves police officers, saying it was damaging residents’ trust of the city’s own police officers.
Although all of the agents interviewed felt the old priorities had kept them from doing their jobs, John Sandweg, an acting director of ICE in the Obama administration, defended the rules as making the best use of limited resources. Without them, he said, fewer dangerous people might get deported. “There are 10 seats on the bus, they go to the first 10 you grab,” Mr. Sandweg said. “It diminishes the chances that it’s a violent offender.”
He said that he had spent a lot of time on the road, speaking at town halls where he heard a great deal from the rank-and-file agents about the priorities. “Certainly they were not terribly popular,” he said. “They wanted unfettered discretion.”
Agents said that even with the added freedom, they would still go after the people who presented the greatest danger to the public. And what Mr. Sandweg called unfettered discretion, they called enforcing the law.
“The discretion has come back to us; it’s up to us to make decisions in the field,” a 15-year veteran in California said. “We’re trusted again.”