Trump rhetoric has created 'atmosphere of terror' for immigrants, advocate says

On paper, last week's raids of immigrants seem routine: Both federal enforcement officials and local activists agree the arrests align with raids that occurred under former President Barack Obama's administration. But the timing of the raids, less than a month into an administration vowing to crack down on people living in this country illegally, has intensified the fears of immigrants, even those with legal status.

Chicago's enforcement office made 235 arrests across six states — Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Kansas and Missouri — during an operation that began Feb. 4 and concluded Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said. Forty-eight of those arrests occurred in the Chicago area.

For immigrants still shaken by President Donald Trump's ban last month on travel from seven largely Muslim countries, news of the raids, as well as rumors of federal agents' inquiries into immigration status on sidewalks and in businesses, has stripped away their sense of security.

Gabe Gonzalez, a community organizer who addressed more than 400 Rogers Park residents gathered at a meeting Monday to discuss federal action against immigrants living in the country without legal permission, doesn't think Obama and Trump's policies are all that different.

"What is different is the level of fear, because everyone saw (Trump) for eight months talk about the wall, talk about deporting everybody, talk about getting rid of Muslims ... it's created an atmosphere of terror," he said. "There is an atmosphere in this country that has been created by this rhetoric that scares the hell out of people."

Gonzalez discussed the need for a rapid response network to spread the word about ICE raids and transport people to safe havens.

On Jan. 25, Trump issued an executive order to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal status. Trump's order expanded the list of deportation priorities to include any noncitizen who is charged with a criminal offense of any kind or who is suspected of committing criminal acts, fraud or willful dishonesty while interacting with immigration officials, is the subject of a pending order of removal or has previously been deported and re-entered the country.

The order gave much broader leeway to ICE officers in deciding whether someone posed a "risk to public safety" and therefore could be detained.

Under the Obama administration, the government focused on targeting immigrants living in the country illegally who posed a threat to national security or public safety, as well as recent border crossers. Despite the narrower focus, more than 2 million people were deported during Obama's eight years in office. During an operation that occurred over a five-week period last year under the Obama administration, 331 unauthorized immigrants were arrested in the Midwest, including 107 in Illinois. The majority of people were arrested in Chicago, Cicero and Waukegan, according to an ICE news report from June 2016.

Although Obama deported more people than any other president, immigration attorney Alen Takhsh said it's Trump's rhetoric that makes the arrests seem alarming. Takhsh also finds cause for concern in the numbers of arrested immigrants without criminal backgrounds.

"My position is that if you are going to target individuals for deportation, it should be individuals who truly do pose a threat to our communities," Takhsh said. "So when you have someone using a fake Social Security number or driving a car without a license — yes, that is against the law, but under the totem pole of criminal acts, those individuals should not be on the priority list of the Trump administration."

In last week's raid, 45 of the unauthorized immigrants arrested in the Chicago region were considered by federal officials to be "convicted criminals," according to an ICE official. Twenty were previously deported and returned to the country.

ICE's definition of a convicted criminal has been a broad one, according to case by case data compiled by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Unauthorized re-entry, DUIs and traffic violations were categorized as criminal offenses.

Once arrested, immigrants' rights to a hearing before an immigration judge depend on their situation. For those arrested because they were previously deported and then re-entered the country, their previous deportation order will be reinstated without a hearing, and they could be quickly removed from the country, according to ICE officials.

Those who have an outstanding deportation order — for example, immigrants who did not comply with their deportation order or who did not show up to a past hearing, and were ordered deported in absentia — also won't be granted a hearing, officials said.

Other immigrants will likely remain in ICE custody awaiting hearings, officials said. ICE officials said they could not immediately release the names of those taken into custody.

In Chicago,15 people were arrested, including an Iraqi citizen with a previous conviction of criminal sexual abuse of a victim unable to consent. A Mexican citizen with previous convictions of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, attempted criminal sexual abuse and solicitation for sex was also arrested in the Chicago area, an ICE official said.

Others arrested included six people in Bensenville, five in Aurora, four in Cicero, two in Addison and one each in Arlington Heights, Bolingbrook, Carpentersville, Elgin, Markham, Melrose Park, Mundelein, Plainfield, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Skokie, Waukegan, Wheaton, Wheeling, Wood Dale and Hammond, Ind., an ICE official said. Thirty-three of those immigrants are from Mexico, and seven are from Guatemala. One immigrant each is from Canada, Chad, China, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Iraq, the Philippines and Poland, an ICE official said.

Those arrested had been convicted on charges such as prostitution, DUI, cocaine possession, burglary, criminal sexual assault, assault, and aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, an ICE official said. Immigration advocates say they believe "collateral arrests" of friends and family members may have occurred, too.

Advocates of stricter immigration enforcement are pleased with news of the raids and hope to see steady deportations throughout Trump's administration.

"The lion's share of those detained were targeted because they had criminal histories and prior felony convictions, and frankly shouldn't have been in the country in the first place. Others had been deported previously or were in the deportation pipeline," Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for reducing both legal and illegal immigration, said in an email.

"While these enforcement actions were taken against those who had committed crimes ... it must be stressed that simply being here illegally is sufficient cause for deportation. Increased immigration enforcement is good for public safety and national security," he said.

In the wake of the raids, lawyers, immigration advocates and community organizers are working to ensure immigrants know their rights, and advising immigrants to call the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights' hotline with their concerns.

Immigration cases have always been difficult for attorneys, Takhsh said. But the increase in volume and requests for representation pouring in from churches and community groups is daunting, he said.

"A lot of times the government is privy to documents and information that we as practitioners only get the day of the individual's court hearing. So once you immerse yourself in this type of law, you very quickly get used to always playing catch-up," he said. "More often than not, you feel like your victories are miracles, because you have to overcome so many obstacles along the way. It's heartbreaking because you're dealing with individuals' lives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, etc."

Gonzalez, the community organizer who suggested a rapid response network, hopes the network will warn people if an operation is being carried out by law enforcement and mobilize the community to oppose the incursion and resolve the issue peacefully.

"What they want is for (immigrants) to be afraid, because then when they're afraid, they won't speak up at work, they won't join a union, they won't complain about their landlord, you can pay them whatever you want, you can house them wherever you want, and you can have a class of second-class citizens that then have to compete with everybody else for jobs," Gonzalez said.

"And who wins?" he asked.

meltagouri@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @marwaeltagouri

echerney@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ElyssaCherney

gwong@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @gracewong630

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