Politics & Government

ICE says it’s focused on arresting criminals. In the Carolinas, that’s been happening less and less.

There’s a “new normal” for immigrants in North Carolina inching closer to reality — but it’s not necessarily the one federal immigration officials had warned about earlier this year.

At a Charlotte press conference in February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency would be making more arrests in streets and neighborhoods. Because ICE had been cut off from the state’s largest jails, officials said, agents had “no choice” but to detain more people out in the open.

At the same time, ICE also emphasized that it mostly goes after unauthorized immigrants who have been convicted or charged with crimes. (Most immigration violations are considered civil — not criminal — charges.)

“ICE continues to focus its enforcement efforts on criminal offenders,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in a statement to the Observer this week. “Claims of any type of random or indiscriminate enforcement by this agency are not accurate.”

But in the Southeast, ICE has steadily been arresting more immigrants who lack a criminal record, according to an Observer analysis of data released by the agency last week.

The Atlanta office for the agency, which oversees Georgia and the Carolinas, has not changed the number of people it detains each year across the region in the current administration: Since at least fall 2017, it apprehended about 1,230 immigrants each month. (Arrest numbers, however, are down from the early 2010s under President Obama.)

In the past year and a half, though, the percentage of those arrested who lack criminal convictions or pending charges has been rising steadily, up almost 50% in the past two years for the Atlanta field office, from 7.75% to over 11.5%.

Cox, the ICE spokesman, said this shift is still relatively minor and attributed it to changing priorities since the 2016 election. During the tail end of the Obama administration, ICE focused on arresting and deporting serious criminals. But the agency now considers anyone living in the U.S. illegally a priority for arrest — regardless of their criminal record.

“It makes sense that we’re going to encounter some of those individuals that are removable under the law but were not removed,” he said.

These shifting patterns come at a time of heightened attention to ICE’s role in North Carolina, as newly elected black sheriffs in some of the state’s biggest counties have stopped helping the agency detain immigrants who are living here illegally.

ICE and Republicans in the state legislature and Congress have countered these sheriffs, raising alarms about what they called a public safety threat.

In February, ICE Field Office Director Sean Gallagher said changing policies had forced them to conduct a weeklong series of targeted, mass arrests in February — ones that rounded up 275 people across the state in total. He reiterated that ICE was focused on targeting dangerous criminals.

“If this was indiscriminate arrests, you wouldn’t see such a high rate of criminality in the people that we arrest,” Gallagher said at the press conference. “We conduct this specific, targeted enforcement, going after specific individuals at specific places.”

Under Trump, however, the agency has changed how it measures the criminality of those it arrests.

Up until fiscal year 2017, ICE divided detainees into those with and without criminal convictions. Since fall of 2017, though, it has also tallied up those arrested with pending criminal charges. That change creates a large bump in the proportion of detainees the agency deems as criminals.

(The Observer’s analysis only uses data after that change was made, though year-over-year data — which divides arrests into those with and without criminal convictions — reflects a similar pattern reaching back to 2016.)

Cox said that “pending charges” was an important data point to include because of the agency’s shifting priorities.

“Noncriminal individuals are not necessarily noncriminal,” he said. “They came into this agency’s custody pursuant to a criminal arrest. Many of those individuals may go on to be convicted of crimes or may not yet be convicted.”

District attorneys may also choose not to prosecute an individual who was arrested by local law enforcement but then ended up in ICE custody before they could be convicted, Cox said. Those individuals are now accounted for under “pending charges.”

But advocates like Barbara Randolph, who leads the immigrant justice team at Queens University’s Stan Greenspon Center, said that this makes it difficult to track the profile of who ICE arrests.

“The categories are becoming merged and the nomenclature is becoming morphed to justify (ICE’s claims) without any responsibility to the public,” she said.

Randolph penned a letter to Gallagher in February demanding that the agency release data on the breakdown between criminal and noncriminal arrests, including a specific list of criminal charges for those who had been arrested in North Carolina. The letter was also signed by leaders from the Latin American Coalition and Charlotte Women’s March.

Citing ICE data, the letter said that the largest percentage of criminal behavior related to ICE arrests nationally “is rooted generally in non-violent crime” and that pending charges don’t always lead to convictions.

“Instead of a problem chasing a solution,” Randolph said, “their solution is to further confuse and deceive the reading public about the nature of crime.”

According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the proportion of ICE detainees — in other words, those who are taken into custody by the agency after being arrested — without criminal records has also shifted to include more people without a criminal history: That figure shot up 39 percent from 2016 to 2018.

But Cox points out that even those who are considered “noncriminal” have ignored deportation orders or otherwise evaded the law.

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly described immigration violations. Most violations are considered civil charges, but immigrants can be charged criminally for improper entry or re-entry.
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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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