A businessman and father from Ohio. An Arizona mother. The Indiana husband of a Trump supporter. They were unassuming members of their community, parents of US citizens and undocumented. And they were deported by the Trump administration.
It’s left many wondering why the US government is arresting and deporting a number of individuals who have often lived in the country for decades, checked in regularly with immigration officials and posed no danger to their community. Many have family members who are American citizens, including school-aged children.
President Donald Trump famously said in a presidential debate that his focus is getting the “bad hombres” and the “bad, bad people” out first to secure the border, but one of his first actions after taking office was an executive order that effectively granted immigration agents the authority to arrest and detain any undocumented immigrant they wanted.
Where the Obama administration focused deportation efforts almost exclusively on criminals and national security threats, as well as immigrants who recently arrived illegally, the Trump administration has also targeted immigrants with what are called final orders of removal – an order from a judge that a person can be deported and has no more appeals left.
In Trump’s first year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 109,000 criminals and 46,000 people without criminal records – a 171% increase in the number of non-criminal individuals arrested over 2016.
The Trump administration regularly says its focus is criminals and safety threats, but has also repeatedly made clear that no one in the country illegally will be exempted from enforcement.
“We target criminal aliens, but we’re not going to exempt an entire class of (non)citizens,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton told reporters Wednesday.
“All of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez added in a statement.
Critics say including people with decades-old final orders of removal as priorities is more about boosting numbers by targeting easily catchable individuals than about public safety threats.
“A final order of removal is absolutely not indicative of a person’s threat to public safety,” said former Obama administration ICE chief and DHS counsel John Sandweg. “You cannot equate convicted criminals with final orders of removal.”
Sandweg said that people with final orders, especially those who are checking in regularly with ICE, are easy to locate and can be immediately deported without much legal recourse. Identifying and locating criminals and gang members takes more investigative work.
There are more than 90,000 people on so-called orders of supervision who check in regularly with ICE officials, according to the agency. And there are more than 1 million who have removal proceedings pending or who have been ordered to leave the country but have not.
As a result of the change in ICE policy, headlines about heart-wrenching cases of deportation separating children from parents or caregivers have been a regular occurrence.
The story of Amer Adi, an Ohio businessman who lived in the US nearly 40 years, and has a wife and four daughters who are all American citizens, drew national media coverage last month. Through a complicated dispute about his first marriage, Adi lost his status and was ordered deported in 2009, but ICE never opted to remove him from the country. His congressman even introduced a bill to protect Adi, saying he was a “pillar” of the community, but last fall, ICE told Adi to prepare to be deported.
At a check-in on January 15, he was taken into custody and not allowed to see his family before being put on a plane back to his home country of Jordan on January 30.
“We shouldn’t spend one penny on low-hanging fruit,” said Sarah Saldana, the most recent director of ICE before Trump’s inauguration. “What we should be spending money is on getting people who are truly a threat to public safety.”
The Trump administration has subtly blurred the distinction between criminals and those with final orders of removal, which is a civil, not criminal charge.
ICE has combined “ICE fugitives” – people who have been ordered to leave the country but haven’t yet – with convicted criminals who have pending criminal charges and reinstated final orders of removal, allowing the agency to say 92% of those arrested under Trump had criminal convictions or one of the other factors – when the number with criminal records is closer to 70%.
With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, ICE has typically had resources to arrest and deport only roughly 150,000-250,000 individuals per year – requiring the agency to make choices about who to prioritize to proactively seek out for arrest.
ICE says its mission is carrying out the law and that it “must” deport these individuals.
“The immigration laws of the United States allow an alien to pursue relief from removal; however, once they have exhausted all due process and appeals, they remain subject to a final order of removal from an immigration judge and that order must be carried out,” said Rodriguez. “Failing to carry out final orders of removal would be inconsistent with the entire federal framework of immigration enforcement established by Congress, and undermine the integrity of the US immigration system.”
Administration officials also argue the publicizing of these cases sends a message to would-be border crossers that undocumented immigrants are never safe in the US, even when sympathetic.
“If we don’t fix these loopholes, we’re going to entice others to make that dangerous journey,” ICE Director Tom Homan told the President at a roundtable earlier last month. “So it’s just not about law enforcement, it’s about saving lives.”
But Saldana and other former immigration officials question the prudence of going after that population indiscriminately, saying it diverts resources from more serious security concerns.
If 20 officers are assigned to identify targets with final orders, “those are 20 officers who won’t be out focused on finding gang members or criminals,” said Bo Cooper, a career official who served as general counsel of ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“When there are a finite amount of resources, choices you make come at the expense of other choices,” Cooper said. “It really is a significant policy choice.”
Sandweg said the Obama administration in 2014 changed its priorities to move away from those with old removal orders in order to give itself more resources to pick up targets from jails, which can be hours away from ICE offices, when they get word that a criminal could be detained on immigration charges.
Sandweg and Cooper noted that other law enforcement agencies also prioritize – the Drug Enforcement Administration doesn’t bother with low-level marijuana possession, but focuses on cartels, Sandweg said – and it’s a part of agency culture.
“Setting enforcement priorities is not micromanagement, that’s what every law enforcement agency does,” agreed Cooper.
As for whether ICE was handcuffed during the Obama era, Saldana said that even in Trump’s executive order, there is room for discretion.
“That’s silly,” Saldana said. “Can you imagine having 11, 12 million in the system? The cost would be extraordinary, so you have to make priorities and work that way. … You can’t sweep everybody into one category. Not everyone is a contributor to society, and not everyone is a criminal.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.