Part I: Immigration Enforcement Unbound

The United States has long been home to exclusionary immigration policies. Under the Trump administration, the hardline position that deems undocumented immigrants criminals defines immigration enforcement operations, with ICE calling the shots.

Edward Murphy 6/12/2018

ICE officers arrest undocumented immigrants during a wave of deportations in 2011. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

This piece is part of a two-part series on the impacts of immigration enforcement policies on Honduran immigrants and deportees under the Trump administration.

Editor’s Note: Some of the specific names and details in this article have been changed to protect the sources’ security.  

Last September, Alejandra Contreras was one of approximately 19,000 undocumented immigrants deported from the United States. She was forced to leave the country only six days after agents in the Detroit Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office informed her of her deportation order. ICE agents placed an ankle monitor on her and booked her a flight to Honduras, Alejandra’s country of origin.

After having lived in the United States for 13 years, Alejandra flew to San Pedro Sula, Honduras with her two daughters, six and 10 years old, both U.S. citizens. It was their first time on an airplane. They were heading to a country plagued by state-sponsored repression, a bleak employment situation, intense political instability, and the second-highest murder rate in the world.

Alejandra’s case resembles several others that have received press attention during Donald Trump’s presidency (for example here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). As in other cases, Alejandra had not committed a crime beyond her immigration infraction. She had a clean record in the United States as an employee, community member, and parent of U.S. citizens. Yet ICE deported her anyway, putting great stress on her family and ignoring both her personal history and the dangerous environment in Honduras.

In an important if not entirely unprecedented shift, the Trump administration has been much more aggressive than previous administrations in going after cases such as Alejandra’s. This move has generated some controversy and public sympathy. So too has the recent “zero tolerance” policy that separates children who cross the border from their parents. These practices, however, have not significantly reshaped broader immigration policy proposals. The most recent proposals have pledged to extend protections for DACA recipients—with some expanding to all undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children—and have sought to bolster existing immigration security and enforcement.

The ease with which ICE could effectively treat Alejandra as a criminal underscores a chilling reality of contemporary immigration enforcement: the extreme, hardline position that links undocumented immigrants to crime and national security threats now stands as a central aspect of immigration enforcement operations. This association does far more than rally Donald Trump’s xenophobic supporters.

In the absence of immigration reform, the Trump administration has deepened a decades-old process that has transformed immigration policy into an issue of criminal justice and national security. For far too many, immigration itself has been treated as a crime, where the punishments can be astonishingly severe. In the world of immigration enforcement “justice,” the fate of deportees and unauthorized immigrants hardly matters at all: their lives are disposable and their suffering—and sometimes deaths—are merely byproducts of enforcement.

Criminalizing Immigration

Alejandra, who I met in 2017 while working with Latinx immigrants in Michigan facing legal difficulties with ICE, first came to the United States in 2004 with her son Felipe. After a dangerous three-week journey from Honduras through Mexico that cost them around $10,000, Alejandra and Felipe crossed into Texas, where they quickly discovered that border security extends deep into the U.S. interior. They ended up at a Border Patrol checkpoint, one of about 140 located anywhere between 25 and 100 miles inside the U.S.-Mexico border. Agents processed Alejandra and Felipe, eventually letting them go. Alejandra was told she would need to appear in immigration court in San Antonio, but no specific date was set for her appearance.

Alejandra and Felipe made their way to a mid-sized Michigan city, where they reunited with Alejandra’s husband, Felipe’s father. Alejandra developed a tight-knit community that met for birthday and holiday celebrations and supported one another. Throughout the years, Alejandra further settled into her life in the United States. She joined a church, hardly ever missing Sunday mass and Wednesday bible study. She gave birth to two daughters. She worked a lot: as a caregiver, support staff at a restaurant, and a house cleaner. Alejandra’s jobs were the kind of insecure, low-income work—such as farm labor, meatpacking, construction, landscaping, and home improvement—that the undocumented perform throughout the United States. She hardly ever took vacations and she did not receive benefits like healthcare or overtime pay, she explained—although she did, at times, pay taxes. It is estimated, in fact, that undocumented people pay nearly $12 billion annually in state and local taxes, even as they usually do not receive government or employee benefits.


In 2013, when Alejandra was in a car accident, everything changed. Though not at fault in the accident, ICE detained her after the police officer at the site of the accident reported her as undocumented—resulting in what she described as one of the most difficult moments in her life: a two-week detention in federal prison.

The police officer was able to report Alejandra to ICE because of the Secure Communities Initiative—a program that began in 2008 that collects fingerprints and other biometric data from local police departments, which ICE then uses. In response to numerous lawsuits and the refusal of many localities to participate, the Obama administration suspended the program, replacing it with the Priority Enforcement Program, which kept in place key tenets of the program. Yet President Trump reinstated it. Since its inception a decade ago, and through its reinstatement, the program has led, according to ICE, “to the removal of over 363,400 criminal aliens from the U.S.”

Secure Communities is an extension of the 287(g) clause in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. 287(g) permits local police departments to enter into agreements with ICE to target “criminal illegal aliens.” IIRIRA terminated the policy that had protected immigrants without a criminal history from deportation. It also expanded the kinds of crimes that could result in deportation, building on legislation passed under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. After IIRIRA’s passage, for example, immigrants who had been convicted of a crime resulting in incarceration and had served their punishments still faced deportation. An immigrant who used a fake or borrowed social security number in order to work became guilty of an “aggravated felony,” while crimes such as shoplifting or driving without a license also became deportable offenses.

All of this took place within the context of the tougher sentencing that became a part of the War on Drugs and the more widespread use of the “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” policing strategies that targeted low-income, urban, and minority communities across the United States. Such policies have led to mass incarceration not only for young African American males, but also for young Latinos, both undocumented or with a temporary legal status. Mass incarceration has become part and parcel of mass deportation, despite the fact that immigrants commit crimes at a significantly lower rate than U.S. citizens. Since the late 1990s, this has been an important reason why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE have significantly increased their deportation numbers.

Immigration Reform, Deferred

While in prison in 2013, Alejandra discovered that the immigration court in San Antonio had issued an order of deportation against her in 2004. On the advice of a lawyer, she sought to obtain a renewable one-year stay of removal on her deportation. Given her clean record and the fact that Alejandra was now the sole caregiver for her children, two of whom were U.S. citizens, the stay was granted, allowing Alejandra to work legally, processing shipments in an automobile parts assembly plant, where her knowledge of Spanish was essential. Coming out of the shadows allowed Alejandra to have a more secure and financially stable life, a common outcome for those who achieve a greater level of legal status. At the same time, Alejandra was also able to reapply for annual stays of removal—which cost $700 per year and a hefty sum for a lawyer to submit paperwork—until 2017.

Meanwhile, she also held out hope that national immigration policies would change. While Congress again failed to pass “comprehensive” immigration reform in Congress in 2010, the Obama administration had nonetheless provided certain protections for approximately 700,000 of the 3.6 million Dreamers with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program in 2012. Two years later, Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), another executive action that stood as an important check on the all-out criminalization of non-citizen immigrants, but did not provide the full range of protections and benefits of citizenship. DAPA, however, was blocked in federal court following a lawsuit introduced by conservative lawmakers and attorneys general in 26 different states. Ultimately, the Trump administration rescinded the program. If implemented, DAPA would have covered nearly four million people, including Alejandra.

For Alejandra, DAPA’s demise meant that her only hope was to work with ICE. She continued to apply for and have her annual stay of removals approved, although her lawyer also indicated that she could appeal her deportation order and request asylum. This option, however, remained a secondary effort if the stay of removal failed. But in early 2017, ICE did not immediately approve Alejandra’s stay of removal request. The agency instead demanded numerous appointments where Alejandra had to bring in more documentation and would need to again be fingerprinted, photographed, as well as weighed and measured. In these meetings, ICE agents also brought up the possibility of leaving the country “voluntarily,” giving her paperwork to fill out if she planned to renounce custody of her children. These meetings were distressing: Alejandra was afraid of what going to Honduras would mean, and horrified by the idea that she would give up her children.

Receiving the Worst News

In the summer of 2017, I accompanied Alejandra to an appointment with ICE, acting primarily as her interpreter. ICE does not generally permit anyone in its offices who are not in its docket, so in order to get in, I followed the advice of a lawyer who told me to tell the guard I had an appointment.

In the waiting room with Alejandra, I looked through the letters of support we had brought with us. They had been easy to gather. The pastors at Alejandra’s church described her as “committed, dedicated and loyal to not only her family, but to every relationship in her life.” The principal at her children’s school wrote that Alejandra is a “single parent, loving mother, [and a] very caring, hard working, and thoughtful person.” Stating that she has “an exceptional work ethic and can be trusted to work effectively and diligently,” Alejandra’s employer noted that he constantly relies on her.

When Alejandra was finally called to her appointment with her case officer, we presented the letters and the request for the stay of removal. After taking my ID and scanning it, the officer proceeded to quickly review Alejandra’s case history. Alejandra did not appear to understand everything, so I intervened. The officer looked at me and, with a rising voice, said, “I am talking to Alejandra as her case officer.” I pressed a little further, but the officer shot back, saying that this was his case and that he had a large backload to work through. I nodded and remained silent. But shortly thereafter, the officer indicated that Alejandra had known of the order of deportation in 2004. I again interjected, pointing out that she had only known of the order in 2013 following her detention. Responding tersely, the officer told me to go to the waiting room, which I did, although only after asking to speak with his supervisor.

As I sat in the waiting room a few minutes later, the case officer stormed in and shouted that the supervisor had ordered me to leave the building. Three armed guards then escorted me out. As they did so, one of them said that I was being filmed, while pointing at one of the building’s numerous security cameras. This all happened in front of the 30 or so people who remained in the waiting room. It was clear that ICE had the power to control who came in and out of its buildings.

Had I been a lawyer representing Alejandra, I could have stayed, as those who have an appointment with ICE do have a right to bring legal counsel. But that is a very expensive and time-consuming option. Few, even if they had lawyers, could do this. ICE officials generally process the immigrants they deal with in their own, securitized buildings, unencumbered by outside restraints. Here, as elsewhere, there are few checks on their authority and little in the way of judicial due process.

ICE did agree to review Alejandra’s request for a stay of removal. Yet when she returned to the office two weeks later, she was denied. In retrospect, Alejandra never really had a chance, especially given the order of deportation against her. Under Trump, people who previously might have been able to work with ICE, establish a good record, and stay in the country can no longer do so. As one immigration lawyer put it, cases such as Alejandra’s are the kind of “low-hanging fruit” that ICE is now going after to increase its deportation numbers.

In 2017, the agency increased its arrests and detentions by 30 percent. Under Trump, ICE has also nearly tripled its deportations of those with no previous criminal record—though the actual number of deportations has not increased. As Alejandra’s case officer indicated, the agency faces a large backlog. And since previous administrations had already aggressively targeted immigrants with criminal records, however minor, and those who had just crossed the border, the administration is going after cases such as Alejandra’s to maintain its deportation numbers.   

In making their decision in Alejandra’s case, ICE agents overlooked a great deal of pertinent information, including that she is a single mother who would either have to take her children to a dangerous environment or consign them to foster care. These agents also acted alone, as an immigration judge never ruled on Alejandra’s case, the only check on the authority of both DHS and ICE.  (This check is limited, however: immigration courts fall under the jurisdiction of the Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice and they do not offer the protections afforded by the criminal justice system.)

In cases such as Alejandra’s, ICE ultimately acts as prosecutor and judge. ICE’s judgments, moreover, now generally presume that an immigration infraction is a deportable offense. Border Patrol agents—another bureaucratic entity that, like ICE, also operates under DHS— had already been acting on this supposition as it more rapidly processed and deported those who crossed the border, one of the primary reasons the Obama administration set record levels of deportations.

At the same time, immigration enforcement agencies are extending their operations deep into the criminal justice system and aggressively seeking out potential deportees. In doing so, they explicitly create an environment of fear. For the acting director of ICE, Thomas D. Homan, such an outcome is evidently something to be celebrated. He testified before Congress last July that if you committed a “crime by being in this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder. You need to be worried.”

Homan’s attitude epitomizes a “law and order” strand in hardline right-wing arguments about immigration, an argument that fuses Trumpian anti-immigrant sentiment with national security and enforcement apparatuses. It also underscores a basic logic that mandates how ICE is carrying out its deportations. Given their immigration transgressions, undocumented immigrants are criminals and should be treated as such. Wherever they are found, and no matter their records, they need to be detained and deported.

This logic ignores both context and the effects of immigration policies on families and communities. As Homan and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have argued, if families and communities are torn apart through deportation, the fault lies with immigrants who chose to come to the U.S. illegally. Such logic also disregards laws, such as the 1980 Refugee Act, that provide clauses to treat immigrants such as Alejandra as refugees or potential citizens. Historically, the United States has both deported and legalized long-term undocumented migrants. Current immigration enforcement is moving fully toward deportation, without exception.

The legal status of the undocumented and those with a partial legal status must be addressed in public debates, in Congress, and, to a lesser extent, in judicial review. Yet in the absence of immigration reform, DHS, and therefore ICE, takes charge of how immigration policies are actually being implemented.  

At the same time, both the failed efforts at congressional compromise on immigration and the Trump administration’s proposal for passing a DACA bill have included significant budget increases for immigration enforcement agencies. Yet even the most progressive proposals would only partially change the priorities and objectives of these agencies. ICE’s hardline position on immigration largely rules the day.

ICE, in fact, not only enforces immigration policies, but also plays an active role in shaping them. Both ICE and DHS inserted themselves at the last minute into congressional debates on immigration reform. Citing national security concerns, DHS furnished a deceptive, paranoid memo to Congress which argued that bipartisan, compromise legislation would not allow DHS to enforce immigration laws and lead to increased crime, a swarm of illegal immigration, and terrorist attacks.

The Trump administration and its congressional allies subsequently doubled down on their demands to link protections for DACA recipients to extensive funding for border security and immigration enforcement. They also tried to further their stated goal of making immigration policy about “merit.” For these hardliners, an immigrant who deserves to come to the United States is wealthy and educated, not someone with an established record in the country such as Alejandra. Both Democrats and moderate Republicans refused the Trump administration’s proposals.                                                                    

With the demise of immigration reform, DHS now has a freer hand to pursue an agenda that criminalizes immigrants and militarizes enforcement. In this environment, ICE acts largely alone. It also washes its hands of context, especially in countries such as Honduras, where a long-term relationship with the United States hangs heavily in a violent present. In “returning” to Honduras, Alejandra and her daughters do not have the choice of turning a blind eye: they will have to survive in Honduras. 

Edward Murphy is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and the author of For a Proper Home: Housing Rights in the Margins of Urban Chile.

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