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Immigration enforcement under Trump: Is there reason for the fear?

Brenda Avelica's father, who was living in the U.S. illegally, was stopped by immigration officials and arrested in Highland Park in February. The case has received national attention. She said immigration agents also visited the family's home looking for her father in 2015.
Brenda Avelica's father, who was living in the U.S. illegally, was stopped by immigration officials and arrested in Highland Park in February. The case has received national attention. She said immigration agents also visited the family's home looking for her father in 2015.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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Protesters rallied in downtown Los Angeles last month in support of 48-year-old Romulo Avelica Gonzalez, a father of four who immigration officials arrested in February.

Federal agents pulled him over in Highland Park, about six blocks from where he had taken one of his daughters to school, and while on the way to drop off another daughter.

His case made national headlines. A video of the arrest filmed by his sobbing 13-year-old daughter was widely shared on social media. Politicians got involved. Supporters held a fundraiser to help cover his legal expenses. A broad network of activists and supporters, many strangers, came to the family's defense. 
 
The keen interest in Avelica's arrest may not have risen to the level it did two years ago, under President Obama's administration, when his family says immigration agents first came to its home.
 
“In 2015 in September, ICE showed up to my mom’s house," said Brenda Avelica, 24, one of her father's older daughters. "He felt that it was ICE, so he didn’t come out. My dad didn’t come out. And they didn’t have an order to come in. So they didn’t take him that day.”

Local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would not comment on any prior attempts to arrest Romulo Avelica Gonzalez. But they did confirm he would have been a priority for arrest even under the Obama administration's guidelines: According to the immigration agency, Avelica had a 2014 deportation order and a minor criminal record, including a DUI dating back to 2009.
 
Brenda Avelica said after the 2015 visit, the family took precautions.
 
“We lived paranoid, like scared," she said. "We didn’t have a gate in the back, so we put in a big gate with a lock. We had one dog, but we got another dog, for guarding purposes…my dad didn’t go to the store by himself after that anymore. Somebody went with him, just to be a witness, or in case something like that was going to happen.”

She said it took months before the family relaxed and let down its guard.

"We started living normally again," Brenda Avelica said. "But it was always in the back of our heads. I don't think there was a day that we weren't...thinking that maybe it could happen."   

What's different now

Many immigrant families with members in the U.S illegally are living with similar fears.

Since the Trump administration signed an executive order in January establishing a policy of strict enforcement against unauthorized immigrants, arrests have made frequent headlines. Some immigrants have gone into hiding or are preparing for the day ICE agents show up. Others contemplate or have taken steps to return to their homeland.

Yet for all the felt fear and life-changing decisions families are making, this is not the first time that immigration agents have cracked down on those lacking permission to reside in this country.

In the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration sent ICE agents to arrest immigrants with outstanding deportation orders. ICE "fugitive operations" teams were sent to people's homes in the early morning hours. On many occasions, bystanders who were not being sought but in the country illegally, were also arrested. ICE called these collateral arrests.
 
More recently, the Obama administration deported record numbers of immigrants. In fiscal years 2012 through 2014, more than 400,000 deportations took place each year, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics. A record 434,015 immigrants were removed from the U.S. in fiscal year 2013.
 
So why does the fear seem heightened in the wake of Trump's election?

Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton, says enforcement policies have gotten stricter. INS preceded the Department of Homeland Security.

“The [Trump] guidelines say that everybody who is in the country without a legal status is subject to deportation from the country," said Meissner, now a senior policy fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

She said the Trump executive order rolls back protections initiated in the later Obama years, directing immigration agents to focus on immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

She said while those with criminal records remain priority targets under Trump, agents have more discretion to arrest others deemed deportable, even if their sole charge is living in the country without legal status.

It's still not clear to what extent deportation numbers could change under Trump's executive order. "We don't really know how much of a difference it will actually make," Meissner said. "It is too soon to tell."

What does seem likely, she said, is there will be more collateral arrests as occurred in prior administrations, and more arrests of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who don’t have criminal records.

Rumors, rhetoric and reality

Such arrests essentially return enforcement to where it stood in the late 2000s. But a decade ago, arrests rarely made the national news. Now, cases of an immigrant suddenly deported or an arrest of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) participant granted temporary residency can turn into a cause célèbre.   
 
Alex Nogales, director of the media watchdog group National Hispanic Media Coalition, has a theory about why this is.
 
“What is so different now than it was 10 years ago, 5 years ago? ... [It's] that the talk is out there, day in, day out," Nogales said.
 
While past administrations carried out tough enforcement, too, they did not engage in the same harsh rhetoric that Trump has employed since his campaign. His vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants appealed to his supporters and that promise is now making its way into his enforcement policies.
 
“You know, when you have that kind of a toxic environment, of course people are gong to talk about it. Of course people are going to report on it," Nogales said. "Of course there is going to be a lot more action and activity and fear.”
 
Contributing to the heightened reaction are immigrant advocates who have stepped up their activity in response to Trump's enforcement policies, he said.

Some reports of ICE activity that are circulated — not just by advocates but by concerned residents via social media — have turned out to be inaccurate. 

"You kind of get this flurry of calls from friends, like, 'I saw on Facebook that there's this checkpoint over here,' " said Erick Huerta, a Boyle Heights community activist who grew up undocumented in the U.S. and has temporary protection from deportation under DACA.

In January, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said witnesses told them there were workplace arrests in Chino. But ICE officials said they made no arrests there on the day cited. 

ICE agents did announce the arrests in Southern California of  about 160 immigrants in February, describing the "enforcement surge" as part of the agency's periodic operations. However, reports at the time of ICE checkpoints and random sweeps were dismissed by David Marin, field office director for enforcement and removal operations in the Los Angeles area.

Marin called the information "definitely dangerous and irresponsible because reports like that create a panic, and they put communities and law enforcement at risk,” he said.

Decisions in a fraught climate

In this atmosphere, people are basing decisions about their lives on information that may not be true or to their best advantage, said Alejandra Cano, a representative of Mexico's national immigration service, the Instituto Nacional de Migración.

Cano, who works at the Mexican consultate in Los Angeles, has seen the effects of this superheated climate. She coordinates a program through Mexico's immigration service called "Somos Mexicanos," or Spanish for "We are Mexican." The program assists Mexicans who are returning home, both voluntarily and because of deportations.

Cano said since January, 77 Southern California families have sought help to move back to Mexico. Most have U.S.-born children, and seven have already left.

Lately, she has seen a marked difference in the reasons people give in explaining why they want to leave the U.S..
 
“Before ... the reason was because they wanted to retire in Mexico," Cano said. "And now, the people feel afraid.”
 
Cano said she tries to reason with them. She asks them if they have a criminal record or a deportation order. If they don’t, she tells them there is no cause to rush out of the country.

She points out that in the first three months of this year, Mexico has received fewer deportees than in the same period a year ago, when Obama was in office.
 
“The difference now is the message that this administration is sending to everybody, and the fear in everybody," Cano said. "That fear is making people take decisions they shouldn’t take.”
 
One result of the heightened awareness of deportation cases is that those arrested — like Romulo Avelica Gonzalez — are attracting more support than they might have before Trump took office.
 
After Avelica was arrested, administrators at his daughter's school quickly spread the word and immigration activists mobilized an effort to stop his deportation.
 
It has worked so far — Avelica is still in detention, but not yet deported. Lawyers are working to keep him in the country.
 
“I feel like now, with the presidency, I feel like immigration is maybe a little bigger now, and maybe it’s talked about more," said Avelica's daughter, Brenda. "So maybe it is getting more attention now than before.”
 
She's hoping, with the widespread attention he's been receiving, her father will eventually be released.