U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced Friday they have arrested 161 people in six Southern California counties over the past five days, insisting that the latest actions are part of their periodic enforcement operations.
Calling the latest arrests an "enforcement surge," they said they targeted immigrants with criminal histories, as they have done for the past few years.
David Marin, field office director for ICE enforcement and removal operations in the Los Angeles area, told reporters on a conference call Friday that any reports of mass arrests are false and creates panic in the community.
"The rash of these recent reports about ICE checkpoints and random sweeps and the like — it is all false, and it is definitely dangerous and irresponsible because reports like that create a panic, and they put communities and law enforcement at risk,” he said.
Marin said ICE did not target any so-called "sanctuary cities" for enforcement. He said the arrests occurred in six of the seven counties of his agency's coverage area and the operation was planned prior to Trump taking office.
But he also complained that his agency's job has gotten more difficult because of recent legislation passed by state and local governments, some of which forbid local law enforcement agencies from assisting in immigration enforcement.
Officials said they had no specific orders from President Donald Trump's administration to carry out the raids. Shortly after taking office, the president signed an executive order targeting any immigrants living in the country illegally as priorities for deportation, particularly those with outstanding deportation orders, the Associated Press reported.
The order also listed as priorities convicted criminals, those arrested for any criminal offense, those who committed fraud and anyone who may have committed a crime.
The Washington Post reported Friday that authorities launched a "series of raids, traffic stops and checkpoints" in about six states Thursday and Friday, citing attorneys and immigrant advocates as sources for the reports.
But the AP said it is unclear if the latest actions are tied to Trump's order.
On Thursday, some Los Angeles immigration attorneys and advocates said 100 people were arrested in a day and detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A. — a figure that ICE dismissed as grossly exaggerated.
The reports fed fears running high in the Los Angeles area that immigration agents are stepping up efforts to find and deport immigrants.
Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, among the sanctuary cities, issued a statement that he talked to an ICE official and asked that ICE needs more transparency about its ongoing operations.
"Angelenos should not have to fear raids that are disruptive to their peace of mind and bring unnecessary anxiety to our homes, schools, and workplaces," the mayor's statement read.
He said the Trump administration should take a "just, humane, and sensible approach that does not cause pain for people who only want to live their lives and raise their families in the communities they call home."
Even while ICE officials tried to alleviate fears about ramped up arrests, immigration advocates remained wary.
Angelica Salas with CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said she’s heard too many reports of arrests for the current situation to be business as usual.
“We know what the pattern is around coordinated mass activity. And this is what coordinated mass activity looks like, where you have family members, attorneys, different people reporting this activity to us,” said Salas.
Salas said on a typical day, her group may receive just a couple of arrest reports, sometimes none, but that number has picked up this week.
ICE officials said of those arrested in Southern California this week, 150 had some kind of criminal record, 75 percent of them with felony convictions and the rest with misdemeanor convictions. Of those who did not have records, five had final deportation orders or had been previously deported. The others were described as living in the country illegally.
Among those picked up, according to CHIRLA, was a Van Nuys man named Manuel Mosqueda, who had a prior deportation order but did not have a criminal record.
At the CHIRLA office Friday morning, his daughter Marlene Mosqueda described getting a phone call from her father’s fiancée after he was arrested at his home.
“She was crying, and she was telling me that they came in, they wanted to ask questions,” she said. “The moment that he came out, they told him sit there, you stay there … from there, they just asked for everybody’s identification.”
She and CHIRLA staff said they believe agents came to the home looking for someone else, but ended up questioning the occupants, “and they ended up taking my dad,” Mosqueda said.
Her father remains detained. Attorneys intervened on his behalf to stay his deportation and take his case before an immigration judge.
ICE officials have conducted periodic sweeps in recent years as local jurisdictions and some states – including California – have dialed back cooperation with federal immigration agents, refusing to hold immigrants who can otherwise be released. ICE has deployed “fugitive operations” teams to track down people who are released from local jails.
One similarly large operation by ICE in August 2015 under the Obama administration led to more than 240 arrests in Southern California over a week.
But there’s a change in attitude, said CHIRLA staff attorney Karla Navarrete. She said Friday that when she went to a downtown holding facility Thursday to file paperwork on behalf of someone who was arrested, an officer there told her “things have changed.”
“I think the difference is that we are in a different era,” Navarrette said. “That it’s been clear that there is a goal to deport 8 million people.” That is a reference to President Trump's pledge to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, which by one estimate by the Los Angeles Times could reach up to 8 million people.
In comparison, more than 2 million people were deported during Obama's administration, according to the Associated Press.
This story has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in naming the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. KPCC regrets the mistake.