Immigration agents last week entered a house in Oregon that was undergoing renovation and arrested one of the workers inside, taking him away in handcuffs because they thought he was in the country illegally. The man was later released, but his immigration status is the least interesting aspect of the story. Federal agents, without either an arrest or search warrant, entered a private home and hauled off someone in handcuffs.
That followed by a couple of weeks another Oregon encounter in which immigration agents approached a U.S. citizen outside of a courthouse and demanded identification papers because they thought he resembled another man – with whom he apparently bore little resemblance beyond skin color – suspected of being in the county illegally.
Oregon's two senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, were right to demand officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement explain these blatant abuses of power and, in the case of the home invasion, unconstitutional actions. ICE agents sought to explain away the illegal home entry with the laughable excuse that because the owners were living in the basement while workers renovated the main floors, the private home was a place of business, so agents had a right to enter. The federal government now feels it can redefine basic concepts such as what constitutes a home, and decide unilaterally when it needs a warrant.
There have been other highly questionable moves by ICE agents since President Trump took office. Showing up at courthouses in plainclothes and without visible badges to arrest people there for hearings or other court business. Taking a woman awaiting emergency brain surgery from a Texas hospital and into detention. Stopping an ambulance (also in Texas), then following the 10-year-old patient it carried to a hospital and, after she received emergency gall bladder surgery, spiriting her away to a juvenile detention facility.
After California Gov Jerry Brown earlier this month signed into law SB 54, which bars state and local authorities from doing federal immigration enforcement except in specific circumstances (such as involving people with violent criminal histories), ICE's acting director, Thomas D. Homan, warned that his agents will "have no choice but to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community." And he added, in an even darker threat: "ICE will also likely have to detain individuals arrested in California in detention facilities outside of the state, far from any family they may have in California."
Such strong-arm tactics weren't enough, so Homan has also engaged in a disinformation campaign. As the wildfires raged in Northern California this month, Homan teed off on the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department over an old case in which someone living here illegally started a small fire in a park while trying to stay warm. Homan said the sheriff's department had not honored ICE detainers asking it to hold the man – even though there was no outstanding arrest warrant or other legal authority to do so – and implied that more devastating wildfires could be the result. It was a deplorable politicization of a tragedy, and Homan ought to be ashamed.
But this is where we are with immigration enforcement under Trump — the government acting in a shameless manner. Sick children taken from their parents. Fourth Amendment rights tossed aside. U.S. citizens accosted and asked for their papers. Where's the conservative backlash over such governmental overreach?
Arrests are up, yet deportations are down, and the immigration enforcement system is even worse off than before Trump took office (the immigration court backlog has increased by more than 116,000 cases over a year ago). Now domestic violence victims are afraid to report the crimes, children – often U.S. citizens – live in fear that their families will be split up, people trying to work with the legal system walk away because showing up at court to pay a traffic fine or testify in a trial could get them deported. Are you tired of winning yet?
Despite all those efforts and their negative consequences, some 11 million people still live in the country without legal permission. Most have lived here for more than a decade, and many now have American children. None of these moves by the administration will address that fundamental issue. The government – especially Congress – needs to move beyond bellicosity and bad policy and turn in earnest to forging a humane and comprehensive reform agenda for the immigration system, including a path to legal status and, where warranted, a path to citizenship for people who have become integral parts of our communities and economy.