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Raids of Illegal Immigrants Bring Harsh Memories, and Strong Fears

11 Jan


NEW HAVEN — Anthony Barroso was 13 and getting ready for school when they came for his father.

As soon as Anthony opened the door, he knew the half-dozen men outside were not local police officers. They carried heavy weaponry, and their bulletproof vests read “ICE,” short for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They arrested and deported Anthony’s father, an Ecuadorean who had been illegally working as a contractor here for over a decade. One officer warned Anthony, as his infant sister cried, that they would soon return for his mother.

“Everything fell apart after that,” said Anthony, whose single mother fell deeper into poverty after the family breadwinner was deported. He is now a student at a community college and was allowed to stay in the United States under a reprieve signed by President Obama.

The 2007 raid was one of the hundreds of coordinated federal sweeps targeting illegal immigrant workers carried out during President George W. Bush’s second term. The headline-grabbing roundups of illegal workers slowed under the Obama administration, which has deported a record 2.5 million immigrants since 2009, largely by focusing on recent border crossers, employers who hired illegal workers and immigrants with criminal convictions.

But as President-elect Donald J. Trump prepares to take office and promises to swiftly deport two million to three million undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, bipartisan experts say they expect a return of the raids that rounded up thousands of workers at carwashes, meatpacking plants, fruit suppliers and their homes during the Bush years.
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“If Trump seriously wants to step up dramatically the number of arrests, detentions and removals, I think he has to do workplace raids,” said Michael J. Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School who represents detainees in civil rights cases.

Since the election, Mr. Trump has suggested that he plans to focus on deporting criminals. “What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers,” he told CBS News in November. “We’re getting them out of our country.”

But Mr. Trump’s advisers have said that to promptly reach his target number of deportations, the definition of who is a criminal would need to be broadened. In July 2015, the Migration Policy Institute, a bipartisan think tank, estimated that of the roughly 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, 820,000 had criminal records — a definition Mr. Obama mostly adhered to during his second term, evicting some 530,000 immigrants convicted of crimes since 2013.

Mr. Trump would need to expand the basket to include immigrants living in the United States illegally who have been charged but not convicted of crimes, those who have overstayed visas, those who have committed minor misdemeanors like traffic infractions, and those suspected of being gang members or drug dealers.

Targeting workers for immigration-related offenses, such as using a forged or stolen Social Security number or driver’s license, produced a significant uptick in deportations under Mr. Bush. But the practice was widely criticized for splitting up families, gutting businesses that relied on immigrant labor and taking aim at people who went to work every day, rather than dangerous criminals.

During Mr. Bush’s second term, deportations increased to 360,000 from 246,000, while the number of immigrants convicted of crimes who were deported remained virtually stagnant, according to government statistics. And a 2007 report by the National Council of La Raza and the Urban Institute that analyzed work site raids in Massachusetts, Colorado and Nebraska said a majority of the children affected by the arrest and deportation of their parents were United States citizens and were infants, toddlers or preschoolers.

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that federal identity-theft laws may not be used against illegal workers who used fake Social Security numbers to get jobs, unless those workers knowingly used numbers that belonged to real people.

“This is the low-hanging fruit in the system: nondangerous undocumented immigrants with families,” said John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE under Mr. Obama. “Those people don’t hide. Criminals hide.”

Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary under Mr. Bush, defended workplace raids. He said these sweeps proved a potent way to protect workers by tamping down on the “ecosystem of smuggling,” which emboldens migrants to sneak into the country and empowers employers to hire them to work illegally, in unregulated and often inhumane conditions.

“We found it to be effective in a targeted way,” Mr. Chertoff said in an interview. “We didn’t willy-nilly stop at a workplace and raid it.”

Mr. Trump has not said specifically how he plans to deport several million undocumented immigrants, or if he plans to use work site raids. In an interview with Fox News during the campaign, Mr. Trump said he would draw on the approaches of Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, but “with a lot more energy.”

A spokesman for the incoming president, Jason Miller, said, “We are inheriting the worst illegal immigration crisis in modern U.S. history and will need to develop a multifaceted approach to protect America’s economic and national security.”

A spokeswoman for ICE, Sarah Rodriguez, said she could not speculate on what the incoming administration would do.

Work site raids became a cornerstone of Mr. Bush’s second term and increased sharply after his efforts at an overhaul of the immigration system failed.

In a coordinated 2006 operation, federal immigration officials raided six Swift & Company meatpacking plants in several Midwestern states, leading to the arrest of an estimated 1,300 immigrant workers. Two years later, ICE officers stormed a kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, arresting 400 workers, or roughly 20 percent of the rural town’s population.

Stories of ICE agents flooding a factory floor or restaurant kitchen, or following workers home to arrest them there, led to such fear of “La Migra,” the Spanish slang for American immigration officials, that they inspired a genre of Mexican ballads, known as “migra corridos.”

Activists say the powerful scenes of ICE agents hauling off undocumented workers en masse could appeal to Mr. Trump, a former reality TV star who is savvy about media. In November, Mr. Trump earned widespread cable TV coverage — and controversy — for publicly pressuring a Carrier air-conditioner plant in Indianapolis to keep roughly 1,000 jobs from moving to Mexico.

“If you want to do enforcement by creating images, this fits the bill,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and director of the Migration Policy Institute’s New York University office.

But he added that the raids could also “run counter to Trump’s image for being an economic engine president,” because the practice hurts business owners.

Mr. Chertoff said that ideally, Congress would grant “hard-working people” a legal path to temporarily fill jobs in industries like meatpacking and agriculture, where labor shortages exist. “Until that happens, the law is the law, and if you don’t enforce the law, you end up incentivizing people to break it,” he added.

By 2011, workplace raids had dropped by 70 percent since the final year of the Bush administration, and Republicans lawmakers implored Mr. Obama to return to the era of mass work site apprehensions.

Instead, Mr. Obama initiated a drastic increase in “paper raids,” or investigations into employers suspected of hiring illegal workers. Since January 2009, ICE has audited more than 8,900 employers and imposed more than $100.3 million in fines, according to government data. Mr. Obama also oversaw a spike in apprehensions at border crossings, which contributed to his administration’s record number of deportations.

“With Obama, we thought he was going to walk on water, and he threw us under the bus,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group.

Work site raids became the subject of lawsuits claiming that immigration officials had violated constitutional protections against racial profiling and unreasonable searches.

Teresa Vara Gonzalez, 46, originally from Morelos, Mexico, had been in the United States for 26 years when ICE agents arrested her in 2007, part of the nationwide effort known as Operation Return to Sender.

Ms. Vara Gonzalez and other immigrants arrested in the New Haven area filed a lawsuit. ICE settled, without admission of wrongdoing, and the immigrants received cash payments and permission to remain in the country temporarily.

Now, Ms. Vara Gonzalez worries that she will be targeted again under Mr. Trump. “He says even if we have papers he doesn’t like us,” she said on a break from her job at a taco truck painted with offerings such as tacos al pastor and lengua.

In May, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, an early supporter and adviser to Mr. Trump during his campaign, won a legal victory when a federal appeals court lifted a court order blocking Mr. Arpaio’s use of workplace raids to enforce state laws that make it illegal for immigrants to use stolen identification to get a job. Still, his hard-line approach to the issue contributed to his being voted out of office in November.

In an interview, Mr. Arpaio declined to say whether he had advised the president-elect on his border and immigration policies, but said, “There’s a way to stop the problem, but you have to have the will of the president.” He added, “I’m optimistic.”