Immigration officials pointed Wednesday to a steep jump in arrests during President Trump’s first 100 days, citing recent captures in Texas and New York of reputed members of the notorious MS-13 street gang as examples of dangerous criminals detained since February.
But in Los Angeles on Wednesday, when top law enforcement officials announced the arrest of about two dozen suspected MS-13 members, there was pushback from the city’s police chief on the role of unauthorized immigration in the local arrests.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the gang is “largely made up of illegal immigrants,” but he added: “This is not about immigration status. It’s about their criminal status.”
Beck said many of the witnesses and victims who cooperated also are unauthorized immigrants and that MS-13 preys on their communities.
“They extort them. They rob them. They rape them. They murder them. Without their cooperation as witnesses, without their cooperation as victims, none of this would be possible,” Beck said of the arrests.
Beck said LAPD policies, and those of other agencies, do not call for checks of immigration status when witnesses and victims are approached. Officials have argued that doing so would lessen the trust between police and the community.
The police chief's comments highlighted a sharp division between federal officials and some local law enforcement officials over the degree to which local agencies should be involved in immigration enforcement.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they need more cooperation from local law enforcement to detain unauthorized immigrants, particularly if they commit serious crimes. Beck and others say local police must concentrate on local law enforcement and need the cooperation of witnesses and victims who may be living in the country illegally.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in an email to KPCC that "ICE believes local law enforcement’s cooperation with the agency is crucial in promoting public safety."
"When local law enforcement declines to work with ICE and releases criminal aliens onto the street it needlessly puts communities at jeopardy," she wrote.
Kice added as a way of encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward, "the agency works closely with state and local law enforcement to see that foreign nationals who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking crimes are informed about the availability of special visas to enable them to remain in the U.S."
During a press call with reporters Wednesday morning, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said that between the inauguration and the end of April, the agency arrested more than 41,000 people. During the same period last year, ICE arrested about 30,000 immigrants.
Homan credited the larger numbers to Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement, which removed restrictions applied during the Obama administration.
“The executive order, it could have been written in one sentence, and it could have said, 'Now we are going to enforce the laws on the books,'" he said. "We are enforcing the laws that Congress enacted and that Congress appropriates us to do.”
Homan bemoaned a lack of cooperation from police departments, saying it's more difficult for agents to pick up immigrants when local law enforcement agencies decline to hold them for agents.
"To arrest people at-large rather than in the county jail, it takes longer, it takes more resources, it's less efficient," Homan said. "We would like to arrest them in the safety, security and privacy of the county jail. But if the jail doesn't cooperate with us, and we've got to go find that person in the general public, or in his home, that is what we need to do."
The statistics that ICE released Wednesday also showed a 50 percent jump in "the arrest of aliens at-large in the community," meaning immigrants not picked up in jail settings. Those arrests increased to 12,766 in Trump's first 100 days from 8,381 during the same period last year.
ICE reported more arrests in some regions than others: In the L.A. area, ICE arrests ticked up only about 5 percent during this period, from 2,166 last year to 2,273. Other ICE offices, such as Dallas and Miami, reported sharper spikes in arrests.
The agency said close to three-fourths of those arrested nationwide had some kind of criminal conviction. Officials would not say how many were so-called “collateral arrests” – immigrants arrested after agents encounter them by chance.
Homan told reporters that simply entering the United States illegally constitutes a criminal act. ICE said non-criminal arrests of immigrants in Trump's first 100 days numbered 10,800, up from about 4,200 during this period in 2016.
"We are going to enforce the law on criminals as priority, but we are also going to enforce the law on non-criminals," Homan said. "That is our job."
He said the public should expect more non-criminal arrests.