In Pennsylvania, it’s open season on undocumented immigrants
Anne Franco and her husband, Ludvin Franco, on their wedding day (Courtesy of Anne Franco)
ICE’s Philadelphia office is fanning out into communities across its three-state region and making more “at-large” arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions than anywhere else in America.
This story was co-published with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
(Quakertown) — From the time they first flirted at a party, Anne and Ludvin Franco were inseparable. It did not matter that Anne, a waitress, was Pennsylvania Dutch going back generations, while Ludvin, a cook, had grown up in the scrublands of eastern Guatemala.
It also did not matter to Anne or her open-armed family that Lulu, as they called him, was undocumented. At their wedding in 2013, the Americans and the Guatemalans danced the night away with Latin DJs imported from Queens.
On lawyers’ advice, the Francos waited to start legalizing his status through their marriage until late 2016, after he had lived a productive, crime-free decade in the United States. They never anticipated that President Trump’s promised immigration crackdown would be so swift, and so ruthless in their region.
By last spring, when Pennsylvania roads were starting to feel like a dragnet for immigrants without papers, Ludvin Franco had mostly stopped getting behind the wheel of a car. Often he relied on his wife to drive him, their twin toddlers buckled into the backseat. But the night his soccer team faced a rival in the semifinals of an indoor league, his wife was in the queasy first trimester of a second pregnancy. He headed out alone.
As Franco drove north on Route 309, a Hyundai pulled out of Bubba’s Pot Belly Stove Restaurant and crossed into his lane. He swerved to avoid hitting it, he later said, but failed. Nobody was injured. Franco got a couple of tickets.
A few weeks later, as Franco was leaving for work at dawn, lights flashed. Men in police vests approached: federal agents from the ICE section that normally pursues violent criminals. They knew about the crash.
“Oh, God,” Franco thought. “I’m done.”
By October, when his wife gave birth to their baby girl at an Allentown hospital, Franco had already been deported. He was 3,200 miles away, forced to watch the delivery on the tiny screen of his cellphone from his mother’s sweltering house in Zacapa, Guatemala.
Since Trump took office, deportation officers have been unshackled, as the White House describes it, from an Obama-era mandate to focus limited enforcement resources on deporting immigrants with serious criminal convictions. Across the country, they have been rounding up people like Franco who have sunk roots in this country, living for years, if not decades, with little fear of apprehension.
Nowhere, however, have federal agents more aggressively embraced their newfound freedom than in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware, an investigation by ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer found.
In 2017, the Philadelphia office of ICE, with agents fanning out into communities across its three-state region, arrested more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any of the 23 other ICE offices in the country. This is especially striking given that Pennsylvania’s undocumented population ranks 16th in the country, with West Virginia’s and Delaware’s far behind that.
The reception has been decidedly mixed. In Pennsylvania, as across the country, many officials see undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers who burden the American economy, and they heartily applaud the way in which deportation officers here have worked hard to turn Trump’s campaign pledge of mass deportations into a reality.
“Obviously those numbers reflect that ICE in Pennsylvania is doing their job; they’re doing the work they’re supposed to do,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican known for a hard line against illegal immigration. “People here in Pennsylvania realize illegal immigration is a problem and it’s not only a threat to our national security, but it’s also a threat to families’ jobs.”
At the same time, with 11 million undocumented immigrants nationwide, the government has to choose whom to pursue. And as deportation officers increasingly venture outside jails and prisons — where the majority of their arrests still occur — they are making choices that can seem random, unfair, or sometimes unlawful, not only to immigrants but also to some officials inside the immigration system.
Many of the immigrants arrested in this region last year were simply hapless: They lived in buildings or worked in restaurants or traveled on rural roads that ICE was staking out. They were mushroom pickers in vans that got pulled over without cause; dishwashers in pizzerias that got raided without warrants; Latino men who loosely resembled other Latino men who were ostensibly ICE’s intended targets.
Philadelphia ICE Leads in Going After Those With No Criminal History
In 2017, the Philadelphia ICE office made more “at-large” arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions than any of their 23 regional counterparts.
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Credit: Jared Whalen/Philadelphia Inquirer
“At-large” arrests like theirs are the ones that terrify the immigrant community, break up families, disrupt workplaces, and drive people further into the shadows. And it is in carrying out these kinds of arrests that Philadelphia ICE appears to be an outlier, or perhaps, the statistics suggest, a harbinger.
For this series, reporters obtained and analyzed unpublished data showing monthly at-large arrests in each of ICE’s 24 regional offices in 2017. The analysis showed a large majority — 64 percent — of the immigrants arrested in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware had no criminal convictions. That compares with a minority — 38 percent — in the country as a whole, though the national percentage trended upward over the course of last year.
To understand these arrests and their effects, reporters set out to track down as many regional cases as possible in a system that is notoriously opaque. There are no public records akin to police blotters in criminal cases. The names of ICE arrestees, and the circumstances of their arrests, are not released. Court records, too, are confidential, purportedly to protect immigrants’ privacy, though the policy protects the immigration system from scrutiny, too.
Reporters ended up examining more than 175 immigration arrests, which occurred during three large, multiday enforcement operations last winter, spring, and fall as well as during routine, daily apprehensions.
Together, these cases paint the picture of an ICE region emboldened by a new commander-in-chief to disregard previous norms that distinguished among undocumented immigrants based on their family ties, work records, and conduct in this country. They reflect an organization that valued high arrest numbers and sometimes skirted the law, with little accountability in a system that rarely scrutinizes arrests.
Reporters found that ICE officers under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia regional office:
- Routinely swept up immigrants they encountered by chance when they set out to arrest somebody else, with what they called “collateral” arrests becoming the mainstay of their crackdown.
- Informally expanded their definition of “criminal alien” to include immigrants who got traffic tickets or committed minor infractions like loitering.
- Revived cases that they previously disregarded, using addresses in their database to pick up immigrants they had once deemed harmless, sometimes sending carloads of armed officers to arrest them.
- Took advantage of state and local officials’ willingness to conduct their own informal immigration investigations, call ICE and detain immigrants for hours until federal agents arrived — despite the questionable legality of these practices.
- Occasionally stepped over the legal line themselves, according to interviews, sworn affidavits, and court filings, by trespassing, conducting warrantless searches, engaging in racial profiling, fabricating evidence, and even soliciting a bribe.
In a statement, agency officials said: “ICE and its employees have been given the honor of a special public trust. In keeping with this trust, ICE’s enforcement activities are conducted with integrity and professionalism.” They added: “ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy.”
All told, the crackdown bombarded a system already overwhelmed. There were 11,643 cases pending in Pennsylvania’s immigration courts on March 1 — a 62 percent increase over the end of fiscal 2016.
Immigration judges staggered under their growing caseloads. After his retirement in December, Walter A. Durling, a veteran immigration judge in York who took a relatively hard line on the bench, questioned the wisdom — and cost-effectiveness — of an approach that no longer puts “more serious aliens” first.
“Why take into custody an individual who has been here for 15 to 20 years, has U.S. children, and one arrest for harassment, public intoxication or some such piddling infraction?” he asked. “Or aliens with no arrest record but who were arrested by ICE looking for someone else?”
In 2016, the government would have considered it a waste of limited resources to track down, arrest, detain, and deport a taxpaying family man like Ludvin Franco just because a traffic accident brought him to its attention.
The Springfield Township Police Department in Bucks County, where Franco’s accident occurred, did not report him to ICE, Chief Michael A. McDonald said. Rather, it was ICE that called Springfield, seeking to confirm that citations had been issued to Franco for careless driving and driving without a license.
Deportation officers also took the additional step of interviewing the driver and passenger of the other car.
That interview provided a dollop of innuendo to the deportation officers’ arrest report. As if to bolster their case that Franco warranted removal, the officers wrote that the driver’s wife suffered a stroke approximately two weeks after the accident.
“It was unknown if this traffic accident caused his wife’s stroke,” the report said.
But Lisa Knedler, the driver’s wife, told reporters that her doctor did not think her seizure, as she called it, was in any way related to the crash, in which she was a passenger.
She added that she was nonetheless glad Franco had been deported.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t come back,” she said.
Came Out Swinging
Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump issued an executive order called “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which greatly expanded the population of undocumented immigrants who could be deported.
While immigrants with serious criminal convictions would still “come first,” any unauthorized immigrant would become fair game, Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, told Congress: “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country,” he said, “you should look over your shoulder.”
Still, in their first big enforcement operations under the new rules, ICE offices in Los Angeles and New York effectively operated under the old rules. L.A. arrested 161 immigrants over five days, 94 percent of whom had criminal convictions, and New York arrested 41 over three days, 93 percent with convictions.
Philadelphia’s ICE office, in contrast, came out of the gates swinging. In an “ops plan” submitted to Washington, it proposed a 12-day arrest blitz named Operation Cross Check that would take aim at 255 targets, 70 percent of them “criminal aliens,” according to agency e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
By the 12th day, agents had located only 92 of their intended targets but made up almost all the difference by arresting other immigrants they encountered along the way. In the end, they rounded up 248 people; only 35 percent had a conviction record.
Philadelphia ICE Office Is Nation’s Most Aggressive
The Philadelphia ICE field office arrests more immigrants without criminal convictions than any other ICE region: 64 percent of its “at-large” arrests last year. The office oversees ICE enforcement in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. Nationally, 38 percent of those arrested had no criminal convictions.
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Credit: Jared Whalen/Philadelphia Inquirer
And a pattern was established. By year’s end, Philadelphia ICE would arrest three times as many “noncriminal immigration violators,” in the agency’s term, as either Los Angeles or New York.
In a statement, ICE noted that “immigration violators without criminal convictions include aliens who have been charged but not convicted with crimes, immigration fugitives, and repeat border crossers.”
Each ICE field office has its own culture, and sometimes its own policies and procedures. Each office, too, has a different regional context, some working in urban centers under the watchful eye of established immigrant communities, others in more rural or suburban areas newly grappling with the immigration issue.
Philadelphia ICE’s region runs the gamut. It faces resistance in Pittsburgh and especially in Philadelphia, where most of the region’s undocumented immigrants live. But it has found allies in its rural and Rust Belt zones, where anti-immigrant sentiment runs hotter and where some local economies benefit from federal immigration detention contracts. (ICE paid York County $19.65 million in fiscal 2017 to house immigrant detainees in its prison.)
Getting direct insight into the Philadelphia ICE office itself has been difficult. The agency denied reporters’ requests to interview those who have run the office during the Trump administration. The National ICE Council, which represents 7,600 agency employees, declined to talk. Individual deportation officers, reached on their personal phones, declined too.
As best as could be determined, behind the office’s aggressive immigration enforcement lies some synergy of national, state, local, and ICE office politics. But the critical context is clearly an antagonistic relationship between ICE and the city of Philadelphia that predates the Trump administration.
Like other major cities, Philadelphia does not let ICE agents into its jails and declines to provide ICE advance notice of a suspect’s or inmate’s release without a judicial warrant.
“Some jurisdictions shut the door in our face: San Francisco was one, Philly was another,” said Sarah SaldaÃƒ±a, ICE’s national director for Obama’s two final years.
This posture made it harder for Philadelphia’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO, to produce high arrest numbers when the emphasis was on criminals. And high arrest numbers are the yardstick of ICE’s success, given that Congress judges the agency by how many detention beds it fills, SaldaÃƒ±a said.
Catherine Schack, who retired last year as an ICE lawyer in Philadelphia, said she instantly perceived a tougher mind-set there when she transferred from the Los Angeles office during the Obama era.
“The first thing I noticed was, ‘Holy mackerel, this town is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love? Good grief,'” she said. “What I always saw in Philly was distinctly, ‘We need to bump up numbers.’ But after Trump took over, it was like somebody gave them an injection of testosterone. It was ERO on steroids.”
In the last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has singled out Philadelphia for special denunciation as a so-called sanctuary city, and Philadelphia has sued Sessions over his attempt to withhold federal grant money in retribution.
In response to questions about the Philadelphia ICE office’s high volume of noncriminal arrests, the agency portrayed the city itself as partly responsible.
“When cities do not honor ICE detainers, ICE officers are required to arrest aliens at large and may be more likely to encounter other removable aliens,” said Jennifer D. Elzea, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Still, noncriminal arrests did not soar equivalently in other sanctuary cities last year. A third of the arrests in the San Francisco ICE region, for instance, were immigrants without criminal convictions, compared with 64 percent for Philadelphia.
Also, only 33 of 248 arrests in Philadelphia ICE’s first big operation last year took place in Philadelphia proper, an analysis of internal records shows. Most of the collateral arrests, it appears, did not in fact result from searches for criminal immigrants whom the City of Philadelphia declined to hand over.
On a cold, dark morning early last year, Guillermo Peralta huddled in the entryway of a small, aluminum-sided apartment house on a modest residential street in York Springs. He was waiting for a ride to his job, packing eggs on a farm.
Guillermo Peralta, here in his spartan basement room in York Springs, is a cognitively disabled man who was arrested by ICE officers looking for a convicted cocaine dealer. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)
Peralta is short and stout, with a shy, ready smile for whomever crosses his path.
That morning, it was two federal agents named Joe Vankos and Chad Noel. They were on a mission to capture a 29-year-old convicted cocaine dealer from Mexico.
Instead, they stumbled across and arrested Peralta. Though regional ICE agents had picked up bystanders in the past, they were not supposed to. But in a new era where every undocumented immigrant is a potential target, Peralta was one of the first “collaterals” to be taken into custody. And one of the most defenseless.
It should have been immediately apparent that Peralta, who has difficulty speaking, had serious cognitive disabilities. A neuropsychologist who later examined him wrote in an assessment for the court that Peralta cannot read, write, or identify colors and that he is not competent to give informed consent “or to understand any but the simplest instructions, requests or commands.”
Yet ICE maintained in its arrest report that Peralta not only willfully engaged with Vankos but confessed his undocumented status, stated he was 46, and claimed he had a child in Florida.
Peralta, however, is childless and does not know his age, his pro bono lawyer, Craig Shagin, said. He was abandoned as a youth in rural Pennsylvania and has for decades made ends meet as an apple picker, pumpkin harvester, and construction worker in the Gettysburg area.
Guillermo Peralta stands with his attorney, Craig R. Shagin, outside immigration court in Philadelphia on Feb. 21. Nothing was decided that day; his next hearing is not until 2020. (Avi Steinhardt for the Philadelphia Inquirer)
“I don’t think he knows what deportation is, what it is to be a national or a citizen of a place,” said Shagin. “So how was he answering the ICE officers’ questions? Either they made it up or maybe he was just saying, ‘SÃƒ,‘ to everything they asked. It’s easy to do when somebody has a gun and handcuffs in front of you.”
While Shagin is trying to get Peralta’s arrest thrown out, ICE is rarely willing to let anybody go without a fight. Prosecutorial discretion, encouraged during the Obama years partly as a way to show leniency where merited, has been all but eliminated.
In Peralta’s case, ICE lawyers argued that “even diminished intelligence does not necessarily mean that the respondent is incompetent.” Still, the government doesn’t seem in a terrible hurry to deport him; the next hearing in his case is not until January 2020.
After two months behind bars, Peralta was granted bail and returned to his home: a narrow room in a basement apartment, outfitted with a twin bed and a makeshift shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Visited there by a reporter, he was welcoming but unable to respond to even rudimentary questions.
Asked his birth date, he said, “One, two.” Asked his address, he answered in halting Spanish, “I just live here.”
On another morning last winter, also in the darkness before dawn, a van made its way through Reading, stopping every few blocks to pick up the Latino immigrants heading to work at a mushroom farm in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
After the last of 14 workers had boarded, the red and blue lights of a patrol car flashed behind them. A man wearing a police vest asked the driver for his license and registration, as if he were a local law enforcement officer. But he was with ICE.
ICE says in its press releases that it does not do indiscriminate sweeps and that reports of such sweeps are “false, dangerous and irresponsible.” While “additional suspects” are frequently encountered and arrested, its enforcement operations are targeted, it says.
But several times last year, federal immigration agents pulled over full vanloads of Hispanic workers in rural Pennsylvania without justification, immigrant advocates say.
“Nobody in that van was a target,” said Bridget Cambria, the driver’s lawyer. “It was not a proper stop.”
The driver and six passengers were arrested. Within minutes an ICE van arrived to cart them away.
Farms near York County, Pennsylvania (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)
Pennsylvania is the top mushroom producer in the country, and the industry is dependent on Mexican and Central American laborers. Pickers work long, hard days on farms that stink of steaming compost. Despite Trump’s assertions that such immigrants are stealing jobs, few Americans are willing to do that kind of labor, farm owners say.
“That argument doesn’t hold any water in agriculture,” said Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
The raid on the van, like subsequent arrests in mushroom country, frightened the mushroom pickers, their supervisor said in an interview. Two dozen quit, and they were hard to replace, forcing others to work even longer shifts.
There and at neighboring farms, workers were offered referral bonuses for new hires. Posters said, “Any employee referring a new employee will receive a $150 bonus AFTER the new employee completes their 90-day probationary period.”
In April, ICE moved on to another industry in rural Pennsylvania. Sweeping past “No Trespassing” signs, five officers stormed a poultry transport company and blocked the exits with their vehicles. They said they were searching for a man named Alix who worked at a company called MainJoy Unlimited. The agents were told: This is not MainJoy, and nobody named Alix works here.
So the officers turned their attention to those who did work there, according to interviews with the workers and a company spokesperson. They lined up all the Latino employees — seven chicken catchers — with their faces against a wall. They made no move against some 14 non-Latinos standing nearby; instead they asked the coworkers to lead officers to any other Hispanic employees on the premises. (There were none.)
Under duress, the chicken catchers admitted they were undocumented. And off they went to jail.
Afterward, Luke Brubaker, a prominent dairy farmer from their region, mentioned the poultry transport raid in a meeting between Trump and agriculture-industry representatives. The president maintained that his immigration crackdown was not aimed at their farms, but Brubaker said he told the president that ICE had nonetheless been arresting essential workers in Pennsylvania agriculture.
While the poultry workers were detained, their company hired legal workers in their stead. But chicken catching is grueling, filthy work inside vast, sweltering coops where dust, feathers, and the stench of feces clog the air.
The new workers didn’t last more than an hour.
Held Without Warrants
Given what ICE’s Philadelphia field office saw as the City of Philadelphia’s recalcitrance, it looked elsewhere for assistance.
Early last year, it reached out to local law enforcement leaders in a concerted effort to make them “force multipliers,” emails obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania show. No departments signed formal agreements with ICE, but they understood that a new day had dawned.
“Some of the state troopers had incidents in which they were quite shocked when they called ICE and they got an immediate response,” said Thomas L. Day Jr., the police chief in Mount Holly Springs, Cumberland County.
In their eagerness to collaborate, some state troopers and local police officers took it upon themselves to question drivers and passengers about their immigration status during traffic stops, to make “courtesy calls” to ICE after car accidents, and to detain immigrants without warrants until ICE arrived for the handoff, which sometimes took hours.
Traffic cops were not the only locals willing to give ICE an assist. Early last year, a magisterial district judge in Camp Hill preempted the wedding of a Tajik couple by calling ICE on the groom and his best man, who were led away in handcuffs.
The judge, Elizabeth Beckley, also called ICE after Alexander Curtis Parker and Krisha Amber Schmick showed up at her courthouse last May.
Sweethearts since high school, they had always dreamed of a glamorous wedding venue, but, impatient to tie the knot, they settled on District Court 09-1-02, a squat, uninspired structure with mirrored windows, sandwiched between a car wash and a paint store.
When the constable announced he would be detaining Parker for ICE, the couple was stunned. Though born in Guatemala, Parker, 21, had been adopted by American parents when he was 8 months old. At that moment, he was technically undocumented, with his green-card renewal being processed. But he does not speak Spanish or consider himself an immigrant, much less a deportable one.
Philadelphia ICE was in the midst of its second big enforcement operation of 2017, and federal agents rushed to the courthouse with their biometric identification device. At about the time Parker had hoped to be slipping a ring onto his wife’s finger, he was reluctantly putting his own hand into a fingerprint machine.
But in this case, as rarely happened last year, ICE backed off. The judge, who did not respond to calls, emails, or visits to her courthouse, apologized and offered to proceed with the nuptials. Having already paid the $45 fee, Parker and Schmick uncomfortably allowed the judge to marry them, and celebrated afterward at a LongHorn Steakhouse.
A few months later, expecting a child, the Parkers decided to put the whole unsettling experience behind them. They left Pennsylvania and moved to Kissimmee, Fla., where Parker said he feels “safer from people like the judge that would try to do anything to have me deported.”
Rounding Up Traffic Violators
In press releases about its enforcement operations, ICE highlights — without naming — those with the worst criminal records, portraying its crackdowns as public safety measures intended to rid the country of the “bad hombres” Trump excoriated in his campaign speeches. Operation Cross Check, for instance, yielded “a 34-year-old male citizen of Guatemala with criminal convictions for sexual abuse of a minor.”
But most immigration arrestees with criminal records did not commit crimes against children or crimes of violence; the most common single offense in Operation Cross Check was driving under the influence. And in contrast with previous years, ICE rounded up new categories of offenders.
Rather than focusing solely on those convicted of crimes, ICE’s Philadelphia office apprehended immigrants who had been arrested for criminal offenses but had not yet had their day in court.
Regional officers also arrested immigrants with little prospect of deportation because their homelands habitually refuse to accept deportees. Last winter, they picked up Cho Van Le, a 65-year-old Vietnamese refugee who was serving one year of house arrest for helping his nephew run a marijuana grow house in Berks County. Because Le entered the United States before diplomatic relations resumed with Vietnam in 1995, he cannot be repatriated under an agreement between the two countries.
Nonetheless, he has been held for 14 months in immigration custody, longer than his criminal sentence, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to taxpayers. And he is not alone. Vietnamese refugees filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit in February claiming that dozens like Le have been picked up over the last year and are being subjected to prolonged and pointless detention.
ICE officers in Pennsylvania also aggressively pursued immigrants for traffic violations, or infractions too minor to qualify as misdemeanors, or offenses both minor and dated.
One Mexican man who lived in York was interviewed by immigration agents during the George W. Bush administration after he was sentenced to a weekend in jail for his third driving-without-a-license offense. They let him go, and left him alone. For a decade.
Early one morning last February, however, four armed agents from ICE’s violent criminal alien section seized the man, now 42, as he left his house. He spent three weeks behind bars, until he scrounged together $10,000 for bail.
“ICE had his address for 10 years and he didn’t even bother to move,” said his lawyer, Stephen Converse. “This is a flight risk?”
As with that man, ICE Philadelphia began making muscular shows of force to take into custody people who’d been checking in regularly with immigration authorities for years.
Almost from the day that Adriz Iboy de ChichÃƒ©, 23, crossed the border into Texas in 2015, with her baby, Sheynnon, in a sling on her back, ICE knew precisely where to find her: at a Doylestown apartment complex that is home to scores of other undocumented Guatemalan immigrants.
After Trump was elected, ChichÃƒ© was ordered to wear an electronic monitor, and relinquish her passport and her son’s. Knowing their days in the U.S. were numbered, she tried to arrange for a departure on her own terms.