Fear and panic have gripped America's immigrant community as reports circulate that federal agents have become newly aggressive under President Donald Trump, who campaigned for office with a vow to create a "deportation force."
Federal officials insist they have not made fundamental changes in enforcement actions, and they deny stopping people randomly at checkpoints or conducting "sweeps" of locations where undocumented immigrants are common.
But anxiety among immigrants spiked this week after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency conducted a series of enforcement actions in large metropolitan areas. On Saturday the agency announced that more than 200 people had been arrested this week in six states overseen by the Chicago office. That was in addition to more than 160 detained in the Los Angeles area, as well as arrests in New York, Atlanta and other cities.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Congress on Saturday demanded an immediate meeting with Thomas Homan, the acting head of ICE.
"These raids have struck fear in the hearts of the immigrant community as many fear that President Trump's promised 'deportation force' is now in full-swing," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Homan.
What's certain is that even if ICE and other officials say this is business as usual, many immigrants find more persuasive the words and actions of President Trump, whose political rise was propelled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, a vow to build a wall on the Mexican border and the promise to deport 3 million criminal aliens.
The president roiled Washington two weeks ago with his surprise executive order banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries and a halt in accepting refugees. That order was blocked by federal judges, and while Trump ponders whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, he has said he will craft other executive orders that will make America more secure.
On Jan. 25, five days after taking the oath of office, he issued an executive order titled "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States." Media attention focused on Trump's call for an end to federal funds for "sanctuary cities," which are communities which to varying degrees do not automatically hand over illegal immigrants who come to the attention of local law enforcement.
But the order also expanded the list of deportation priorities to include any noncitizen who is charged with a criminal offense of any kind or who is suspected of committing criminal acts, fraud or willful dishonesty while interacting with immigration officials, is the subject of a pending order of removal or has been previously deported and reentered the country. The order gave much broader leeway to ICE officers in deciding whether someone posed "a risk to public safety" and therefore could be detained.
For immigrant rights activists, the rules of engagement have clearly changed.
"Donald Trump has effectively created a way to deport individuals who have been accused, charged or convicted of anything from murder to jaywalking," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "And if you read the text of that executive order broadly, that applies to all noncitizens. I can tell you, the possibilities have made a lot of people here shudder."
Entering the country illegally — what is technically known as entering the United States without inspection — is itself a misdemeanor. Anyone caught in possession of fake identification documents or who is not honest with immigration officials can also be charged with a crime.
Under President Barack Obama, priority deportees included people who had been convicted of murder and other violent crimes as well as certain drug offenses and gang involvement. Obama's policies called on ICE officials to avoid detaining, whenever possible, nursing mothers and those with serious medical conditions.
That kind of surgical deportation practice was particularly welcome in Los Angeles, where in 2009 immigrant advocates unearthed details about conditions in a basement-level downtown immigrant detention facility known locally as "B-18." Immigrants held at B-18 were, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, not given drinking water, changes of clothes or necessary feminine hygiene products and were sometimes unable to communicate with lawyers. The government and immigrant advocates came to an agreement to change conditions and practices at B-18, but it remains a dreaded place for many of the city's undocumented.
Fear of being detained or deported could lead many people to avoid going to work, school or to public places in coming days, said Salas. She noted that one person detained by ICE this week had been at his job in a Target store.
"ICE wants us to believe they have removed a bunch of felons who were just plotting their next crime," said Salas. "We know that ICE picked up some collaterals, people who happened to be nearby when officers arrived looking for someone else and we think what we've just witnessed is how an emboldened ICE will operate."
ICE this week has put out messages on Twitter suggesting that this week's enforcement actions were not part of a major crackdown ordered by Trump.
"ICE immigration enforcement actions target specific individuals according to the laws passed by Congress," reads a tweet posted by ICE on Thursday.
ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in an email to the Washington Post, "ICE does not use checkpoints, nor do we use sweeping raids. We use targeted enforcement actions against specific individuals to make these arrests."
Immigration rights activists are hoping to call attention to the actions of ICE while at the same time preventing full-scale panic among people who may be avoiding going to work or riding buses out of fear of being detained.
"We're not trying to sow hysteria here, so we're not reporting rumors," said Elizabeth Alex, a regional field director for Casa de Maryland in Baltimore County. "We're sticking to cases where we can verify the situation and that can often take days. But it is fair to say we are seeing new tactics across the county."
She said ICE agents detained a handful of people after they exited the county courthouse in Towson, Md. In one incident, on Monday, an undocumented immigrant who had gone to the courthouse to pay a ticket for driving on a suspended license was taken into custody by federal agents as he left, she said.
"Courthouses are supposed to be places where you want people to go so they can serve as witnesses to crimes and to pay traffic tickets, so I find this so very troubling," Alex said.
She added that Casa has documented cases of illegal immigrants being taken into custody in recent weeks after they showed up for check-in meetings with parole and probation officers in the county. Other illegal immigrants have awoken to find immigration officers staking out their home and have been detained as they left to go to work, Alex said.
In Montgomery County (Maryland), considered a sanctuary jurisdiction, lawmakers and dozens of advocates for the state's immigrant population fanned out Friday evening and Saturday morning after unfounded rumors circulated on Facebook that a public bus had been raided by federal immigration officers.
As the rumor went, officers boarded a bus in the Wheaton area (Maryland), home to a sizable chunk of the Washington area's El Salvadorian community, and began removing riders who could not produce identification.
ICE spokeswoman Rodriguez denied that, and local officials said they found no evidence to back up the rumor.
"There were no buses stopped in Maryland by immigration officers," she said. Similar unfounded rumors popped up elsewhere in the country, including Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
But that did not stop Facebook posts from spreading, and on Saturday morning, often-busy bus stops near the Wheaton Mall were mostly empty. Two young men walking along University Boulevard declined to talk to a Post reporter, but said in Spanish that they had heard about the purported raid.
"The bottom line is, overnight, people are terrorized," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland.
In Los Angeles, several undocumented people declined interviews or to be identified by name in the Washington Post because of concerns that the Trump administration might use newspaper coverage to craft a new list of deportation targets.