Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez says recent sweeps by federal authorities of immigrants living in the country illegally are "striking fear" in immigrant communities because they have not been limited to criminals, a category President Donald Trump labeled as his top priority.
"The raids are not business as usual. The raids are being done indiscriminately. They’re not focused simply on criminal aliens," the senator from New Jersey said in a video posted on his Twitter account Feb. 13. "And because the administration eliminated the Obama administration’s enforcement priorities — where the first and top enforcement were criminal aliens to be deported, then secondly recent border crossers, and then the third and final tier was anybody else — because they did away with that enforcement priority list, now anyone who they come upon who may be undocumented ultimately gets picked up and sent away."
Trump campaigned on promises to deport immigrants illegally in the country, prioritizing the removal of those who have been convicted of crimes or pose threats to national security, such as drug dealers and murderers.
Is Menendez accurate in claiming that recent immigration sweeps are not business as usual and include people without criminal convictions? We found that recent operations are routine, but they also included arrests of individuals who would not have been a high priority under former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Trump’s executive order prioritizing removals
Less than a week after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that directed the secretary of Homeland Security to prioritize for removal a broad range of people, including individuals convicted of crimes "involving moral turpitude" (such as murder); engaged in terrorist activities; convicted of any criminal offense; charged with any criminal offense, even if the charge has not been resolved; with final orders of removal; and individuals who commit acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.
Trump’s priorities "sweep far more broadly," and "do not set up an internal hierarchy to indicate which categories should be emphasized when resources are short — as they always are," said David A. Martin, a professor of law emeritus at the University of Virginia and immigration expert, in an analysis for Vox.
The executive order basically takes the broadest possible definition of "criminal alien," said Martin, a former principal deputy general counsel at DHS, in an interview with PolitiFact.
In the later years of Obama’s administration, the top priority for removal were threats to national security, border security, and public safety; ranked as a second priority were individuals convicted of misdemeanors, recent immigration law violators and individuals who had "significantly abused" visa programs; the lowest priority were individuals who had been issued a final order for removal on or after Jan. 1, 2014.
Prior to outlining those priorities in November 2014, Obama was labeled by immigrants’ rights activists as "Deporter-in-Chief" because his administration had deported more than 2 million people.
ICE targeted operations across the country
In the early days of the Trump administration, elected officials and media outlets have reported that hundreds of immigrants were arrested in cities across America, including people who immigrant rights advocates say don’t fit Trump’s prominent descriptions of public safety threats.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a statement Feb. 13 that said an agency within his department, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, last week conducted a series of targeted enforcement operations in multiple cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, which led to the arrest of more than 680 people.
About 75 percent of them had been convicted of crimes that included but were not limited to homicide, aggravated sexual abuse and drug trafficking, the statement said.
The operations also targeted "individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges," Kelly said.
The targeted operations have been common practice for many years, he said.
An ICE spokeswoman provided PolitiFact fact sheets for targeted operations in recent days and also highlighted previous operations under the Obama administration that focused on arresting criminals living in the country illegally.
A December 2012 Congressional Research Service report on interior immigration enforcement said ICE’s National Fugitive Operations Program targets included at-large criminal aliens and "fugitive aliens who have not been convicted of a crime."
As the Washington Post’s Fact Checker noted, fugitive operations in fiscal year 2010 (Obama’s first full fiscal year) led to 35,774 arrests. In fiscal 2011, there were 39,466 arrests.
Still, Menendez’s office pointed to parts of Kelly’s statement that said 75 percent -- not 100 percent -- of those arrested were criminal aliens and to the line saying that among the arrested were individuals who had violated immigration laws.
To further contrast Trump and Obama’s policies, the senator’s team also referenced a recent deportee, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos. The 35-year-old woman had been living in Arizona and had a deportation order, but instead of removing her from the country, the Obama administration required her to check in periodically as they focused on deporting violent criminals, the New York Times reported. She was arrested during her last check-in with ICE and deported Feb. 9.
ICE said they removed Garcia de Rayos because she had a felony conviction and a deportation order. The Mexican national had used a fake Social Security number for employment and pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal impersonation, a Class 6 felony, according to the Washington Post.
A day after Menendez’s claim that recent immigration sweeps "are not business as usual," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in an MSNBC interview Feb. 14 said he had been told by ICE that there were people arrested who had no other violation besides being in the country unlawfully.
"But some of them were caught up wrong place, wrong time. They're going after somebody, somebody else was in the apartment and they got taken up," Garcetti said.
On Feb. 15, Reuters reported that a 23-year-old Mexican man, Daniel Ramirez Medina, who had been granted deferred deportation protection during the Obama administration was detained by immigration authorities Feb. 10 in Washington state.
ICE told Reuters that Ramirez was arrested "based on his admitted gang affiliation and risk to public safety." Ramirez’s lawyers told the news agency he had been pressured by ICE agents "to falsely admit affiliation."
Ramirez’s detention was not connected to the recent targeted enforcement actions, ICE said. He was arrested when officers went to a home to take into custody another person, a previously deported convicted felon.
Menendez said that recent immigration raids "are not business as usual. The raids are being done indiscriminately. They’re not focused simply on criminal aliens."
Deportations are being conducted on a broader basis than before. But his statement gives the impression that there are widespread deportations of law-abiding people. For the most part, deportations are still focused on people who committed other crimes.
Menendez’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. Overall, we rate it Half True.