President Donald Trump says he has ramped up immigration enforcement to target bad guys — “people that are killing people and that are causing crime.”
“(It’s) much easier just to go to general population — that’s easy,” Trump said earlier this year. “But I don’t do it the easy way. We’re getting tremendous numbers of criminals.”
But two years after his administration launched a nationwide dragnet, federal data shows detentions of noncriminals surged as tens of thousands of immigrants without any convictions were arrested.
Nowhere was this enforcement shift more pronounced than in Florida, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of federal data. Arrests here of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records were seven times the total during the previous administration — the largest increase in the country and twice the national average.
Florida immigration lawyers say their clients were pulled over on the way to work or arrested for minor traffic infractions. They say agents resorted to racial profiling, ordering random people to produce documentation who boarded Greyhound buses or were in Hispanic neighborhoods.
“This is not making me feel safe,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services in Miami. “They’re going after moms and dads of U.S. citizens instead of bad guys.”
Lily Montalvan of Fort Lauderdale said her husband, Walter Gozzer, had lived in the United States for more than 30 years and had no criminal record. Decades ago, he overstayed his visa. He was deported to Peru in March after a routine check-in with immigration officials. Gozzer, who Montalvan described as a hard worker, excellent husband for 20 years and loving father, left behind his two American-born children, Ronnie, 17, and Roxana, 5.
Without a steady job, making the mortgage and paying bills have been hard for Montalvan. Her daughter often asks when her father will come home.
“I can’t lie to my daughter,” Montalvan said. “I can only say, ‘Soon dad will return.’ ”
Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, acknowledged in a statement that anyone in violation of immigration laws could be arrested, detained and deported, regardless of their criminal history.
But she denied that the agency conducts random traffic stops, raids or stings, insisting that it “prioritizes the arrest and removal of unlawfully present aliens who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”
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Five days after his 2017 inauguration, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agents to stop making exceptions when enforcing immigration laws.
People once considered a lower priority because they were not deemed a security or public safety threat became targets overnight. Immigration enforcement agents can now “round up anybody they could find, whether they had a criminal conviction or not,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, people with minor offenses or immigration violations, like those ordered for deportation, were a lower priority.
In Obama’s final full fiscal year in office, about 85 percent of those arrested had criminal convictions. In Trump’s first year, that number dropped to 66 percent.
Immigration attorneys said the strategy under Trump means there are fewer resources to go after people who pose discernible public safety risks. Indeed, the number of criminals with the most serious offenses in detention facilities dropped by 20 percent under Trump, according to a recent analysis of immigration data by Syracuse University.
Advocates are quick to point out that Obama deported more people than any previous president.
“But at least the Obama administration focused on non-citizens who had committed serious crimes,” Yale-Loehr said.
Trump’s immigration agency arrested 53,441 noncriminal immigrants in one year — more than three times as many as Obama.
The trend is especially resonant in Florida. In the last year of Obama’s term, there were 468 people without criminal convictions arrested by immigration agents in this region, which includes Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Two years later, that number climbed to 3,224.
Spicer, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, pointed out that someone without a conviction can still have a pending charge. And she said department data shows a “vast majority” of those arrested have either a criminal conviction or they have been charged with a crime.
Spicer’s statement, though, doesn’t account for the seriousness of the cases. Charges run the gamut — from homicide to traffic offenses — for those arrested who have prior convictions or pending criminal offenses.
About 40 percent of the crimes tied to immigration arrests were for drugs, traffic offenses or immigration-related charges, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. The most common offense, making up 15 percent of charges, was driving under the influence.
And there are many, like Gozzer, who have clean records.
A construction worker, the 51-year-old couldn’t secure legal status. One employer had once offered to sponsor his application, but that fell through when the company went bankrupt around 2000. Still working to obtain legal status last February, Gozzer went in for a routine check-in with immigration officials in Miramar, but he was detained and deported to Peru a month later.
“When you’re jailed it’s (supposed to be) for something bad you did,” Montalvan said in Spanish. “But to be jailed for being in this country undocumented ... they are unjust laws ... separating families.”
Their son Ronnie, a near straight-A student hoping to attend college, couldn’t concentrate in class. He didn’t want to go to school because of the taunts from other kids. He saw a school psychologist and struggled with his homework without the help of his father, who speaks better English than his mother. She is here on a special temporary visa issued to people fleeing violence in their home country.
After three decades of living in the United States, Gozzer has not been able to find work in Peru. The family chats every day through the Internet messaging service WhatsApp.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me, being here,” Montalvan said. “It’s hard, remembering the last time we saw him. We have two children who are waiting for him.”
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One reason Florida outpaces the rest of the nation in arrests of undocumented immigrants who don’t have criminal records can be explained by its geography. Even though it doesn’t touch another country, Florida is considered a border state.
Federal law gives immigration enforcement agents jurisdiction within 100 miles of the border, which is defined as any external boundary, like an ocean. Within those 100 miles, agents can interrogate and arrest anyone without a warrant, as long as they have “reasonable cause to suspect that grounds exist for denial of admission to the United States,” the law says.
Because it’s surrounded by water on three sides, the entire state of Florida is within this warrantless area, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The result? Trump’s immigration enforcement has been carried out to the fullest extent in Florida, said Daniela Carrión, an attorney at the Linesch Firm in Palm Harbor.
“It’s not helping the system and it’s frustrating for immigration officials,” Carrión said. “Homeland Security is frustrated because they’re flush with cases that are low priority.
Through immigration attorneys and advocacy groups, the Times tried to reach out to immigrants without criminal records who were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In most cases, their lawyers said they wouldn’t speak out of fear of retribution to themselves or their families. Some were advised against it by their lawyers. Others already had been deported.
Immigration arrests are highest in Florida’s urban corridors, especially Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties. People without previous convictions accounted for 13 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in Miami-Dade four years ago. Hillsborough had just one noncriminal arrested by federal agents in May 2015.
Three years later, noncriminals constituted more than half of all immigration arrests in those two counties, according to information in the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a repository of federal data maintained by Syracuse University.
Col. Wayne Bunton in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said the department has not changed its law enforcement policies related to undocumented immigrants. But he has noticed federal immigration officials have.
When someone in Hillsborough County is jailed, the feds are notified if that person is undocumented and can ask the sheriff’s office to hold that person once their charges are satisfied. And under Trump, those requests have come more frequently, Bunton said.
Advocates say they have detected a change in how Florida law enforcement approaches immigration. In the past, agencies were likelier to issue citations for minor offenses. Now, advocates say, they are more prone to turn undocumented individuals over to federal authorities. (Bunton said this doesn’t happen in Hillsborough County.)
Lately, there have been more arrests of undocumented people living productive lives, like pulling over work trucks at random, said Chad Brandt, attorney at Orlando’s Brandt Immigration. Agents also drive through predominately Hispanic areas or show up at Home Depot parking lots to round up people trying to find work, said Samson Koyonda, attorney at Tampa Immigration Law Center.
“I do respect the need for immigration laws and that they do need to be enforced. I know a lot of good federal agents at (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). But they’re being misdirected,” said Brandt. “We’re wasting those precious resources on people who are building houses and cleaning hotel rooms.”
Alison Foley of Foley Immigration Law, which has offices in Tampa and Lakeland, said the most common scenario for her clients now is getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation, like having a broken tail light. That leads to arrest and getting turned over to federal authorities.
“These are things that lead us to believe that what is really happening is racial profiling,” Foley said. “Because what are the chances that anybody else would be pulled over for that, much less getting arrested for that?”
Spicer, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said racial profiling is not tolerated. If proof of profiling is found, officers or departments will have their authority “rescinded.”
“Any indication of racial profiling will be treated with the utmost scrutiny and fully investigated,” Spicer wrote.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Martha Asencio-Rhine contributed to this report.