ICE arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions surge

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wendy chavez ice
Wendy Chavez, with her son in front of their home in Greensboro. Chavez' partner was arrested by ICE on May 22. (photo by Jordan Green)

Josue Zarate-Maya, a 25-year-old T-shirt screen-printing operator from Mexico, was arrested by an ICE agent near his home in south Greensboro on May 22.

It started out as a Tuesday morning like any other for 25-year-old Josue Zarate-Maya, a machine operator at a local T-shirt screen-printing company, when he left the modest, brick ranch house he shared with his partner in Greensboro’s Spring Valley neighborhood and headed to work.

An agent with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement wearing a vest marked “police” was waiting for Zarate-Maya en route to work and took him into custody, starting a process that will likely end in his deportation to his native Mexico, and throwing his family in Greensboro into turmoil.

“We have to move through the immigration process,” said Wendy Chavez, Zarate-Maya’s partner, “and let them know he is the man we know him to be — a good man, a good provider, a good person. Our family needs him here.”

Chavez said she and Zarate-Maya have been together for about two years. Zarate-Maya is the father of Chavez’s youngest child, and she has four other children from a previous relationship.

“He was the main provider for our family,” Chavez said. “He paid the rent and paid for all kinds of things like school supplies, especially for the youngest of my children. He bought diapers and baby wipes, which can get really expensive.”

Chavez said her partner came to the United States in 2009, initially settling in Atlanta where he hoped to find construction work through a brother who lived there. Eventually, he found his way to Greensboro and discovered that he could make better money working in screen-printing.

Bryan D. Cox, a spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, confirmed that an agent apprehended Zarate-Maya near his home on May 22. Cox described Zarate-Maya as “a person in the country unlawfully.” Cox said Zarate-Maya will go before an immigration judge, who will determine whether he is eligible for release on bond pending final determination of his status.

“We have to have hope through the faith we have in God that He will bring him home,” Chavez said. “If that doesn’t work out, we will be together as a family, one way or another.”

Chavez said the family will try to make a humanitarian case on her partner’s behalf.

“Josue is a good, contributing member of society,” she said. “Our family needs him with us. He didn’t commit a crime.”

ICE arrests of undocumented people without prior criminal convictions, like Zarate-Maya, have risen dramatically since President Trump took office, and nowhere more so than the areas covered by the Atlanta and Philadelphia field offices, where the number of non-criminal arrests jumped by 323 percent between 2016 and 2017. The Atlanta regional office covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, while the Philadelphia office covers Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. Immigrants with criminal convictions still make up the majority of those arrested, although an ever-diminishing share. During the last two years of the Obama administration, when the Department of Homeland Security rolled out its Priority Enforcement Program focusing on convicted felons, gang members and persons deemed to be a national security threat, individuals with criminal convictions accounted for roughly 90 percent of ICE arrests in the Atlanta region. During Trump’s first year in office, the share fell to 67 percent of 13,551 people arrested in the Atlanta region. And to date in 2018, only 61 percent — 4,765 out of 7,788 — arrests involve persons with criminal convictions.

Sen. Dick Durban (D-Ill.) and 16 other Democratic lawmakers submitted a letter to the US Department of Homeland Security on April 27 raising concern that under the leadership of acting ICE Director Thomas Homan the agency Has “greatly reduced the use of prosecutorial discretion and sharply increased arrests and detentions of immigrants with no criminal background instead of focusing ICE’s limited resources on those who pose a threat to our security.”

Homan has led the agency since Jan. 30, 2017 without being confirmed by the Senate.

The lawmakers wrote, “We understand that the Trump administration may be concerned about Mr. Homan answering questions under oath about his leadership of ICE, as well as the possibility that Mr. Homan’s nomination could be defeated in the Senate.”

ICE spokesperson Bryan D. Cox emphasized in an interview that what the agency deems “criminal arrests” doesn’t include individuals with pending criminal charges who have not been convicted. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of “non-criminal” arrestees were taken into detention with a pending criminal charge although they had not been convicted.

Cox said that’s the case with Zarate-Maya, who faces traffic charges for driving while intoxicated and driving with a revoked license in Guilford County. Cox said Zarate-Maya was arrested by a State Highway Patrol officer on April 22, adding that the criminal charge was “what put him on ICE’s radar.”

Laura Garduño Garcia, an organizer with Siembra NC — a project of the American Friends Service Committee — said it’s typical for ICE agents to make arrests when undocumented people are commuting to work. And she said the word “police” on the agents’ vests creates confusion. ICE agents don’t wear uniforms although they carry badges identifying their agency.

“They bank on people’s trust in the local police,” Garduño Garcia said. “They want to cooperate based on the idea that it can be a regular traffic stop. [The agents] will be walking through neighborhoods, and they’ll say, ‘Do you know this person?’… We tell people in the immigrant community: ‘You know your neighbors’ schedule. You know when they’re coming and going to work. Don’t say anything.’”

Cox defended the agency’s practice of putting agents in the field without uniforms and using the word “police.”

“Agents encounter people who speak multiple languages and some who don’t speak English,” Cox said. “‘Police’ is the universally understood term for law enforcement.

Cox made no apology for ICE capitalizing on goodwill built by local law enforcement, but argued that people in immigrant communities shouldn’t let adverse experiences with ICE color their attitude towards local police.

“It’s important to note that local law enforcement has absolutely no authority to make arrests for immigration violations,” Cox said. “A person who is a victim or witness to domestic violence or any other crime, they should have no reluctance to contact local law enforcement.”

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