Sweeping raids by U.S. immigration officials in recent days nabbed hundreds of individuals believed to be in the country illegally, spreading alarm among immigrant rights groups as they scrambled to gather information and warn people in communities nationwide.
Through social media and pop-up legal clinics, immigrant rights groups have doled out around-the-clock assistance, even as federal officials pushed back against the notion that the detentions reflected a vast overhaul of immigration law enforcement ordered by President Trump.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had conducted "targeted enforcement operations" focused on detaining people with criminal backgrounds in cities across the country. Officials described the operations as "routine."
Nearly 200 people throughout Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina were arrested last week during raids, according to a preliminary tally provided by ICE's Atlanta field office. In the Los Angeles area, more than 150 arrests were made in a weeklong operation, ICE officials said.
And in Austin, Texas, ICE officials did not provide a total number of arrests but did notify the Mexican Consulate General of the number of Mexican nationals. A spokesman from the consulate said Saturday that nearly 50 arrests of Mexican nationals had been recorded since Thursday. On average, the consulate is notified of about three each day. (The Mexican government last week urged its nationals in the U.S. to "take precautions" amid a "new reality" for the immigrant community.)
"ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy. ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately," Bryan Cox, ICE's Southern region communications director, said in a statement Saturday.
Last month, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the removal of people in the U.S. illegally who have criminal convictions. In addition to speeding up the deportation of convicts, Trump's orders also call for quick removal of people in the country illegally who are charged with crimes and waiting for adjudication, as well as those who have not been charged but are believed to have committed "acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense."
"There really is a lot of confusion as to who they're targeting," said Faye Kolly, an immigration attorney based in Austin. "A lot of people are scared."
A video circulating on social media appeared to show ICE agents in Austin detaining several people in a shopping center parking lot.
Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, who represents part of the city that is home to many immigrants, said constituents were hanging dark sheets on windows and refusing to open their front doors, even for immigrant rights advocates.
"And these are constituents of mine who have no criminal records — nothing. But they're being targeted and are really concerned," Casar said.
Jessica Foulke teaches at a charter middle school in Casar's district that is 90% Latino. On Saturday, she fielded dozens of texts and phone calls from students who were concerned about news coverage of ICE sweeps in Austin and nationwide.
"They're asking, 'Will my mom be OK? Will my dad be OK?'" Foulke said. "There's heartbreak and I just don't have all the answers for them."
Sarah Owings, an immigration attorney in Atlanta and chairwoman of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.'s Georgia-Alabama Chapter, said attorneys had heard of multiple detentions last week in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.
"We're hearing that they're using their powers in a very broad manner," she said. "It's not that they're targeting people who have criminal records. They're targeting anyone who's undocumented that they happen to come into contact with. So they're looking for someone specific, but they're also asking everyone for their IDs."
Under President Obama, ICE prioritized violent criminals, such as those convicted of terrorism or aggravated felonies. Now, Owings said, the department seems to be sweeping up immigrants who fall outside that target list.
"Now there's no difference between someone who's a terrorist and someone who's picking their kids up from school," she said. "It's very chilling for the community. No one knows what's going on."
Fear among the immigrant community grew last week when an Arizona woman, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 36, who had been in the country illegally since the age of 14, was deported back to Mexico. She was previously considered a low priority for deportation.
"What we are seeing is Trump's executive actions on immigration being made real, and millions of people in immigrant communities are terrified. We know of moms being deported who have lived in the U.S. for over 20 years, even U.S. citizens being asked for their papers at checkpoints on the road," said Julieta Garibay, deputy advocacy director of United We Dream, an immigrant rights group based in Washington, D.C.
Some advocates have hinted that the raids could be in retaliation for so-called "sanctuary cities" across the U.S.
Trump also signed an executive order that designates sanctuary cities — municipalities that protect people in the U.S. illegally — as "ineligible to receive federal grants" should they continue to ignore immigration laws. Those cities include, among others, Austin and Los Angeles.
"With the new administration, we continue to be concerned," said Kolly, the Austin-based immigration attorney. "I think this will become the new normal for a while."
Times staff writer Lee reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Jarvie from Atlanta.
7:20 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Julieta Garibay.
4 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and comments from Jessica Foulke and Sarah Owings.