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On the ground with ICE agents enforcing Trump’s immigration crackdown

Since President Trump took office, immigration arrests are up 42 percent, and arrests of undocumented immigrants who don't have criminal records are up 145 percent compared to last year. The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia takes us along as ICE officers use the greater flexibility granted them under the Trump administration to crack down on immigrant communities, and how that's affecting families.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier this year, President Trump signed an executive order giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers greater flexibility in arresting undocumented immigrants. The order also ended the Obama era policy of prioritizing violent criminals and gang members for deportation.

    Last week, the agency credited those changes with a sharp drop in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border and a surge in arrests of undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

    As P.J. Tobia reports, critics say those arrests are creating fear in immigrant communities, but agents say they are simply enforcing the law.

  • Man:

    We got three targets today. We're going to start in order A, B, then C.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Just before 5.00 a.m., a dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents gather in a strip mall parking lot, reviewing their targets for the day.

  • Man:

    Surveillance shows that an individual fitting this description leaves at 5.00.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    These men and women enforce President Trump's promise to crackdown on illegal immigration. ICE asked that their officers' faces be obscured for security reasons.

    The agents roll out. Their unmarked SUVs turn into a Virginia neighborhood.

  • Man:

    It might be this house here.

  • Matthew Munroe:

    We will identify all the individuals in the house, and anybody that's in there of interest to us, either criminal history, is in the country illegally, public safety threat, we will make those arrests.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Agents are staking out the home of a Bolivian man with two DUIs and two misdemeanors. They're eventually let into the house.

    The man they're looking for isn't there, but one arrest is made. While investigating the whereabouts of their target, ICE agents discover a different undocumented man.

  • Man:

    Watch your head.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Collateral arrests like this one have become more common under President Trump. Under Obama, this man may not have been arrested at all, to the frustration of some agents.

    Matthew Munroe is an assistant field director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He's worked on immigration enforcement for more than two decades.

  • Matthew Munroe:

    The target wasn't here at this point, but the — there were a number of other individuals in the house that we conducted consensual interviews with, and one of them was identified as an individual who was in the country illegally.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    At the processing center, the man undergoes questioning. They discover he's a Nicaraguan national who entered the U.S. illegally in 1988.

    Since President Trump took office, immigration arrests are up 42 percent. ICE estimates, nationwide, they make 400 arrests a day. ICE has arrested 37,000 undocumented immigrants without criminal records. That's a 145 percent increase over fiscal year 2016.

  • Matthew Munroe:

    There have been times in the past that policies have been such that we have been focused on just certain classes of illegal aliens or people in the country who are subject to removal. Nowadays, it is, anybody who is in the country illegally is subject to arrest.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    How is this a different environment than at any other time in your career?

  • Matthew Munroe:

    We are enforcing the laws that we were sworn to uphold, and that's what we're doing nowadays.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Anyone in ICE custody will eventually find themselves in an immigration detention center, like this one outside of Farmville, Virginia. Every day, ICE holds between 30,000 and 40,000 immigrants in custody. Next year, the White House is aiming to increase that number by 20 percent.

    Once they arrive at the detention center, they're separated based on factors like immigration and criminal history. Detainees can meet with a deportation officer to answer questions. Often, they will act as translators for one another.

    But the one question they won't get answered is when they might be deported. The agency says that information is a security risk.

    Macario Diaz Morales was held in the Farmville detention center for a month-and-a-half. He was released on bond in early November. We met his wife, Areli Vega Reyna, a few days later at their lawyers' office, the Legal Aid Justice Center.

    Immigration raids in their community made the family too scared to speak to NewsHour in their neighborhood. Our cameras might draw unwanted attention. Areli says she was getting in her car to leave for work one morning when an ICE agent approached her in the driveway, asking for her husband.

    Areli Vega Reyna (through interpreter): I would like to speak with him. OK, I told him. He's asleep. And I left, opened the door and went inside. I closed the door, but didn't close it well. It was a bit open.

    After I called him, I went back, and they were already inside.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Macario illegally crossed the border into the U.S. from Mexico in 2006. That same year, he met Areli. She had also come from Mexico, but had been in the U.S. since 1996. They have five children, three from her previous marriage.

    Before he was detained by ICE, Macario supported the family. Areli now works construction to make ends meet. She says that first night after ICE detained her husband was the hardest.

    Areli Vega Reyna (through interpreter): It was the first night in 12 years. I had never been apart from him, nor had he been apart from the kids. It wasn't easy, because I had to work and help them move forward, pay for what needed to be paid. And when he spoke to me, he told me not to let him go, not to let him die alone. It's hard.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    According to ICE, Macario was picked up as part of a targeted enforcement operation, like the one we rode along with. A misdemeanor arrest in July flagged him for deportation.

  • Matthew Munroe:

    They have the potential to be arrested and removed from the United States. That is the fact. That's the laws that are on the books. It's the mission that we have been charged with enforcing. From the president, to the secretary, to the director of ICE, this is what we're going to do.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    As for Macario and his family, he is waiting for approval to join a non-immigrant U-visa his wife has. Areli is waiting to hear back on her own green card application.

    Areli Vega Reyna (through interpreter): I understand that the country has its rules, has its laws. And maybe we have broken that law of coming illegally. One comes for work because of necessity to move the family forward. And I think, I hope, he doesn't go back to Mexico and that he stays with the family.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    What happens next depends, in part, on what the court decides. They will find out if Macario can stay lawfully in the United States or if he will be deported back to Mexico, a life-changing decision, out of their hands, made by a system that's playing by new rules.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia in Washington.

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