PORTLAND, Maine — Immigration arrests in New England rose 85 percent during the early weeks of President Donald Trump’s administration, compared with the same time last year, with federal agents flexing their broadened authority to detain immigrants who have criminal records, as well as those whose only crime was entering the country without documentation.
Notably, arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal records tripled from the same interval last year in New England, marking the Trump administration’s apparent shift away from a policy that helped to shelter undocumented, but otherwise law-abiding, immigrants. With president’s promise to expand Immigration and Custom Enforcement staff and capabilities as yet unrealized, the New England arrest rate is already approaching that seen during the peak of former President Barack Obama’s historic deportation push.
Across the country, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested significantly more people from late January until mid-March than they did during the same period last year, and New England saw one of the most dramatic increase in arrests, according to statistics kept by the federal agency.
That’s had a chilling effect on new immigrants and people who advocate for them.
“I’m afraid for other people and I’m afraid for myself even though I’m legal here,” said David Berdeja, a Mexican immigrant and the coordinator of Maine’s branch of Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant rights group. “[Immigrants] were already scared, but now it’s worse.”
Trump versus Obama
From Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 to March 13, ICE agents in New England arrested 444 people, compared with 240 during that stretch in the last year of the Obama presidency. This year, 156 of the people arrested had no criminal record, compared with 52 last year.
But in New England and nationally, these figures were down from the same period in 2014, when ICE arrested 29,238 overall and 471 in the region. During that period in 2014, 7,483 immigrants without criminal records were arrested nationally, with 186 of them in New England. The national arrest numbers were first reported by the Washington Post.
The Obama administration deported 2.4 million people from fiscal 2009 to 2014, including a record 435,000 in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. But the president also urged Congress to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and granted work permits to more than 700,000 such people who came to the U.S. as children.
A shift in focus
ICE’s recent arrests of people it had seemingly not targeted before Trump’s election has put Maine’s immigrant community on edge. Those arrested include a Guatemalan man who lived in the U.S. without documentation for decades and a legal permanent resident whom the government now intends to deport to Somalia for a 4-year-old drug possession conviction for which he already served jail time.
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These worries are shared by immigrants across the country, where immigration arrests increased nearly 33 percent during the first weeks of Trump’s presidency to 21,362, and the number of immigrants with no criminal records who were arrested more than doubled.
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About 47,000 immigrants live in Maine, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which says that more than half of these are naturalized U.S. citizens. As of 2012, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were fewer than 5,000 undocumented immigrants in Maine, making it one of the states with the lowest rates of unauthorized immigration.
The ICE data break down arrests by region rather than state by state, but recent ICE actions suggest that Maine has not been exempt from aggressive federal immigration enforcement. In a apparent first for the state, three ICE agents entered a Portland courthouse in early April to arrest Abdi Ali, whom the agency is now seeking to deport to Somalia.
Scores of Maine lawyers, and Attorney General Janet Mills, have decried courthouse arrests as a threat to the workings of the justice system. Berdeja said the tactic will drive immigrants out of Maine or underground.
“They will be in the shadows forever,” Berdeja said. “They will not want to go to any court or anything.”
Since Trump took office, ICE has also increasingly asked for help from local and state law enforcement with immigration detainers: voluntary requests that police hold people arrested beyond their normal release so that federal agents can detain and deport them.
In New England, from late January to mid-March, ICE issued 346 detainer requests. This count was 91 percent higher than during the same time period in 2016 and by far the highest over the last four years.
Nationally, ICE issued 22,161 detainer requests during the first weeks of the Trump administration. That was a 75 percent bump from last year, but slightly lower than in 2014.
Portland has a policy of cooperating with federal law enforcement, but also bars employees, including police, from asking about people’s immigration status and does not operate a jail.
South Portland is considering declaring itself a “sanctuary city,” a move that might invite the ire of the Trump administration which has promised to cut federal funds to municipalities that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities.