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San Diego area ICE arrests of noncriminal immigrants led nation from October to December

San Diego area ICE arrests of noncriminal immigrants led nation from October to December
An ICE arrest last year in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

More people with no criminal history were arrested by San Diego's Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the first quarter of fiscal 2018 than anywhere else in the country.

The San Diego field office for ICE, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, was the only field office in the country where the majority of arrests — at about 72% — were of "noncriminals," according to data from the agency.

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Between October and December, ICE officers here arrested 1,622 people without criminal records, and 637 people with criminal records.

The Atlanta field office, which covers three states — Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — had the second highest number of noncriminal arrests at 1,592. That was about 41% of the arrests for that field office, where 2,343 people with criminal records were arrested by ICE.

"ICE arrests of noncriminals in the San Diego/Imperial counties reflect trends involving illegal immigration activity at the local borders, apprehensions made during routine fugitive operations and individuals encountered at the local jails," said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE.

For other field offices along the border, the highest percentage of noncriminal arrests was 43% in Phoenix, where ICE took 733 people with no criminal histories into custody.

Some attorneys speculated that ICE was pushing to make more arrests before SB 54, a California bill limiting local police cooperation with federal immigration officials, took effect in January.

Other field offices in California did not reflect San Diego's trend. In Los Angeles, ICE officers arrested 357 noncriminals, which was about 16% of the field office's arrests. In San Francisco, officers arrested 373, which was about 22% of the field office's arrests.

Within days of taking office, President Trump expanded the agency's enforcement priorities from those with serious criminal convictions to a broader list of people including those who had any criminal conviction, who had been charged but not convicted, who had done anything that could be charged as a crime, or who had already been ordered deported.

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis, noncriminal arrests increased 49% in San Diego in fiscal 2017. The Atlanta and Philadelphia field offices tied for the largest increase at 323%.

As stories about families whose loved ones were targeted have been repeatedly spotlighted by media across the country and data from Trump's first year in office showed an uptick in noncriminal arrests, ICE has insisted that it focuses on criminals but that anyone without authorization to be in the U.S. could end up arrested.

"While ICE continues to prioritize its enforcement resources to focus on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security, the agency's acting director has made it clear that ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens form potential enforcement," Mack told the San Diego Union-Tribune on multiple occasions. "All of those in violation of our nation's immigration laws may be subject to arrest, detention and, if found removable, he or she will be removed from the United States."

Ginger Jacobs, an immigration attorney in San Diego, said that in her time practicing, she's noticed that the San Diego field office always works hard to follow orders from headquarters.

"My perception as an attorney is that our local ICE office is very responsive to policy being set in Washington, D.C.," Jacobs said.

Jacobs who's been practicing since George W. Bush's administration, said that during that time and into the first part of the Obama administration, the main reasons that people would end up being arrested by immigration officials were checkpoints and interactions with local law enforcement.

Collateral arrests happened, she said, but not frequently.

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Beginning in 2011, she said, incremental changes in policy under former President Obama brought about more targeted enforcement.

Those changes have reversed under Trump, she said, and arrests happen in circumstances that would've been rare even under Bush.

"It turned into a zero tolerance policy," Jacobs said. "It's like Bush on steroids."

She has clients who have no criminal history and no prior deportation orders who have been targeted at their homes, she said.

"Going to somebody's house just because they have immigration violations, I've never seen that before," Jacobs said.

Edward Orendain, an immigration attorney in Chula Vista, said he's not surprised by the numbers from ICE's San Diego field office. He noticed that beginning in September or October, any type of contact with law enforcement could land an unauthorized immigrant in ICE detention even if there were no criminal charges.

One of his clients called the police because his wife had hit him. The wife told the responding officers that her husband had not hit her, that she'd slapped him. The officers arrested the man but did not charge him with anything. He ended up in ICE custody.

"We've been seeing a lot of that," Orendain said, noting that after January it had happened less frequently because of SB 54.

Orendain has also seen an uptick in people who were arrested when ICE was looking for someone else in their home or apartment complex, known as "collateral arrests."

Tammy Lin, who chairs the San Diego chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said cases have come in because people got pulled over for taillight issues or other minor traffic infractions.

"They're picking the easy targets," Lin said.

None of the attorneys' clients was willing to be interviewed for this story because of fear that it might negatively affect their immigration cases.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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