AUSTIN, Texas ― President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on undocumented immigrants is in full force this week, with increased deportation efforts around the country, activists and elected officials said Friday.
Immigrant rights advocates reported an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests ― including the detention of people who were considered low priority for removal until Trump signed an order last month making nearly every undocumented immigrant an important target for deportation.
ICE officials initially said that this week’s actions were “routine” and nothing outside the ordinary. But in a conference call with reporters Friday evening, an ICE official appeared to contradict that statement, saying that the agencies targeted several cities in an “enforcement surge.”
Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said ICE’s San Antonio field office told him that South and Central Texas were also targeted as part of an operation called “Cross Check.”
The idea that these operations will become the new normal is exactly what undocumented immigrants are afraid of.
In Austin, Angel Velazquez kissed her boyfriend Hugo before he went to work on Friday morning. He said he’d text her when he got to his job site, like he normally does.
Instead, she got a text a few minutes later in Spanish saying he’d been stopped by immigration authorities. “I was like, ‘Babe, don’t hang up, I’ll be there right away,’” Velazquez told The Huffington Post.
Velazquez, who is a U.S. citizen of Native American descent, rushed with her sister to the place where her boyfriend had been stopped, telling him on the phone as they drove not to answer questions, especially about his immigration status. When they found him, Velazquez said, she asked ICE agents for a warrant, but they responded that they didn’t need one.
Hugo was one of more than a dozen people in the area hauled off to immigrant detention over the last two days. Activists and elected officials in Austin said ICE had stopped undocumented immigrants in traffic, attempted to arrest them in their homes and patrolled the area around an HEB grocery store in the northwestern part of the city.
A Texas-based spokeswoman for ICE declined to specify why the agency had detained any of these immigrants, but Velazquez said Hugo had a DWI ticket on his record.
“The level of ICE enforcement that we’ve seen in the past few weeks is unprecedented,” Stephanie Gharakhanian, an attorney with the Workers Defense Project, told reporters.
Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant rights group, has meanwhile received calls from about 20 different people’s families on its hotline. “I’m connecting them with attorneys,” Alejandro Cáceres, one of the activists fielding the calls, told HuffPost. “I’m telling them not to open their doors.”
One caller told Cáceres that a police officer had accompanied ICE agents to make an arrest ― a seeming contradiction of the “sanctuary” policy that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced last month. Austin Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
ICE’s national office pushed back against the idea that anything was out of the ordinary.
“The rash of recent reports about purported ICE checkpoints and random sweeps are false, dangerous, and irresponsible,” the agency wrote in a statement about detentions in the Los Angeles area. “These reports create panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger. Individuals who falsely report such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support. “
Still, the agency acknowledged the “enforcement surge” in the Los Angeles area. During the five-day operation, ICE agents detained 160 people, all but 10 with “criminal histories,” according to a statement.
Immigrant rights advocates who keep a close eye on deportations said they’ve seen a clear uptick in arrests in multiple cities, including the deportation of Guadalupe “Lupita” García de Rayos, a mother of two U.S. citizens who came to the country at the age of 14, in Phoenix on Thursday.
In the metro area of Savannah, Georgia, ICE agents picked up 26 people, according to news reports. In Atlanta, an advocate said agents had been knocking on doors in an apartment complex and a trailer park. At least nine men who worked as construction workers were detained at a trailer park in Apple Valley, Minnesota, an activist there said.
United We Dream, an undocumented youth activist group, also received calls about increased deportation activity in Virginia, New York, Oklahoma and Florida, Cristina Jimenez, the group’s executive director, said on a call with reporters.
“This is clearly the first wave of attacks under the Trump administration, and we know that this is not going to be the only one,” Jimenez said.
Some of the arrests are happening in so-called “sanctuary cities,” jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with ICE in some way. Trump said he would pressure these jurisdictions into collaborating with deportation efforts.
Austin City Council member Greg Casar, a progressive Democrat, said he believed the vigorous enforcement efforts are an act of retaliation against local leaders for trying to protect undocumented immigrants.
“This is a drastic shift in ICE actions in our community,” Casar said at a press conference, adding that the city council would respond by considering an emergency appropriation to provide legal services to undocumented immigrants.
Immigrant rights groups and their allies in public office plan to increase their efforts to protect undocumented immigrants by holding more “know your rights” presentations and raising funds for legal representation, among other things.
Democratic members of Congress condemned the reported ICE raids and said they would do what they could to fight them.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told HuffPost he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence the crackdown happened this week, as the Trump administration struggled with a roadblock in the courts over its executive order banning refugees and travel from certain Muslim-majority countries.
“This is retaliatory and it is a way to provide political cover ― ‘Look what we’re doing, we’re out there being tough on criminals’ ― when in reality, they’re breaking up families,” Grijalva said. “It’s callous and it’s very, very dangerous.”
Velazquez spent the afternoon in jail herself. When she tried to defend her boyfriend, authorities asked to see her ID. They arrested her on a warrant for an unpaid speeding ticket, she said.
When she left the downtown courthouse on Friday afternoon, she said she felt guilty. She didn’t have to work on Friday. Normally on her days off, she drives Hugo to work. But on Friday, she felt sleepy and asked to stay home and rest.
“I just want him out of jail and just home already,” Velazquez told HuffPost. “I don’t think it’s fair what they’re doing. I don’t see the reason for it.”