As U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at the behest of President Donald Trump, plans mass raids following the July Fourth holiday, newly released documents shed light on the tactics the agency employs during such operations.
The documents, released Wednesday by the immigrant rights groups Mijente, Just Futures Law, and Detention Watch Network, show that ICE officials are building arrest target lists for mass raids to meet specific numbers, even as the agency continues to internally and publicly stress a “public safety” rationale for immigration arrests.
Most of the documents relate to a planned September 2017 ICE operation that was meant to target 8,400 noncitizens; ICE called off the raid after details were leaked to the media. But the documents also include information on five other ICE operations with similar objectives, pointing to how the agency repeatedly recycles its logistical plans.
Immigrant rights groups from around the country filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act to collect information on the planned September 2017 raid, dubbed Operation Mega, and other similar operations. ICE did not respond to the FOIA requests, prompting litigation by the groups, through which they have obtained thousands of pages of documents over the last year.
The groups are working on a comprehensive report about the information contained in the documents, but they decided to release the documents because ICE is poised to sweep up thousands of immigrants as soon as this weekend.
Last month, Trump announced a logistically impossible plan to begin arresting “millions” of undocumented immigrants; later reporting revealed that ICE was planning to target 2,000 families who were issued final orders of removal after not showing up to immigration court proceedings. Trump postponed the operation for two weeks after details were leaked to the media. Last Saturday, Trump said the raids were planned for sometime after Thursday, July 4.
“The ongoing threat of mass raids for mass deportations has made it necessary for us to understand the inner workings of ICE’s mass raid operations,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network. “We’ve confirmed in government documents that ICE operations are politically motivated. Immigration raids are meant to terrorize communities and instill fear.“
In response to The Intercept’s inquiries about the documents, an ICE spokesperson suggested that the agency did not use arrest quotas for raids. “I’m not sure what language you’ve seen that suggests ICE operates under an arrest quota,” said ICE’s Matthew Bourke. “Agency efforts are not based on competition or meeting a specific threshold. ICE operations are driven by the agency’s mission to enforce the nation’s immigration laws and to uphold national security, border security, and public safety.”
Throughout the documents, ICE describes the purpose of its enforcement operations as furthering public safety. An internal email about Operation Mega said the goal was to target “all aliens who are present in the United States in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), in order to significantly impact public safety, national security, and a lawful border control and immigration system.”
A document about a July 2017 raid that targeted unaccompanied minors and their families lays out three target categories that include “subjects with criminal convictions or indicia of criminality.” Gang membership is also a factor ICE considers regarding unaccompanied minors who are 16 or 17 years old. The memo does not define what “indicia of criminality” actually means, though it does include a section defining “gang member” and “associate gang member.” Factors that indicate gang membership, according to ICE, include tattoos that signify gang membership, two or more arrests alongside known gang members, wearing “gang apparel” or possessing “gang paraphernalia,” and being identified as a gang member by an informant or law enforcement officer.
“These documents expose how quota-driven raids feed the mass deportation and detention machine that treats people like numbers and targets, instead of people.”
ICE, however, built its raids around arrest quotas, which indicates that the agency was more interested in sweeping up thousands of people than it was specifically targeting individuals who posed a threat to public safety and national security.
“These documents expose how quota-driven raids feed the mass deportation and detention machine that treats people like numbers and targets, instead of people,” said Paromita Shah from Just Futures Law.
For Operation Mega, the agency used immigration, criminal, and commercial databases to build a target list of 8,400 people that it shared with the 24 field offices for Enforcement and Removal Operations, ICE’s deportation-focused division, around the country.
In one email exchange, a deportation officer in Waco, Texas, asked about how a certain individual ended up on the target list. The officer noted that the National Criminal Analysis and Targeting Center, which is run by ICE’s National Fugitive Operations Program, helped compile the list, drawing on information like traffic tickets and utility bills. In response, an ICE official described the target list as a “kitchen sink type list with a myriad of sources used to build it.”
A deportation officer in Salt Lake City charged with leading the raid in that area wrote on August 24, 2017, that his field office was “required to have 240 targets. Boise can provide 50 targets, leaving 190 additional needed, 95 from SLC and 95 from LVG” — likely referring to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, both cities that, along with Boise, Idaho, fall under the purview of the ICE official based in Utah, according to the agency’s website.
Five days later, in an email chain originating from the Salt Lake City office, an officer wrote that “our [supervisory detention and deportation officers] want LVG to provide 200 good targets, and we are on track for that. To be able to hit 40 targets each day + the collateral arrests, we will need a number of arrest teams, 3 roving transport vans, and a processing team.” The term “collateral” refers to noncitizens who are not targets but, because of their proximity to targets, are also swept up in the raids.
A June 2017 email about a separate operation called Cross Check reveals the arbitrary nature of the arrest quota. “Able to come up with 15 showing criminal convictions,” wrote an ICE supervisory detention and deportation officer in Austin, Texas. “I would like to see 30 total on the list. I realize we may have a hard time finding that many outside of the Austin proper area, so to fill out the number we are looking for we can go inside Austin if need be. Main thing is they have Criminal Convictions.”
After the operation was concluded, one ICE officer congratulated another on their “great numbers!”
Even as ICE framed its operations around targeting convicted criminals, the Trump administration’s policy of treating all undocumented immigrants as equal priorities for deportation meant that hundreds of others got caught up in the raids as well. A report from the Philadelphia field office following a raid carried out from February 27 to March 10, 2017, shows that, of the 248 people who were arrested, only 92 were initial targets of the operation, and only 88 had criminal convictions. That means that more than 60 percent of the people arrested were “collateral” — those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“No proactive outreach shall be conducted with non-law enforcement entities on the planning or execution of this operation.”
A document laying out plans for Operation Mega reveals how ICE’s national headquarters was preparing target lists to share with its two-dozen field offices, to be reviewed and approved by field office directors in advance of the raids. The document also underscores ICE’s secrecy around the operation — even when it came to interactions with the legislative branch and local police. One section, titled “Congressional, Community, and Media Relations” says, “No proactive outreach shall be conducted with non-law enforcement entities on the planning or execution of this operation.” The guide also gave ICE offices the freedom not to inform local police departments about the planned raids if ICE supervisors felt that “operation sensitivities are expected to compromise officer safety or operational security.”
The immigrant rights groups obtained a copy of an August 2017 slide deck that ICE had used to train its officers on constitutional rights in preparation for raids. In Texas, ICE officers scheduled a training on Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures, ahead of the operation. A June 2017 email about Operation Cross Check notes that “all officers assigned to this Operation have participated in 4th Amendment training within the past 60 days.”
The documents also reveal the enthusiasm of ICE officers to participate in the raids that terrorize immigrant communities. Ahead of Operation Mega, a senior ICE officer in Salt Lake City sent out an email soliciting volunteers for the raid. One officer responded within three minutes, writing, “I would like to volunteer. Thank you.” In an August 2017 email with the subject line “Operation EPIC,” ICE’s San Antonio deputy field office director wrote, “I don’t want anyone to feel left out if we can get them in the field we will but need to ensure we conduct the op properly and account for arrests and manpower needs.”