Luis Gutiérrez has seen this before.
The unannounced raids. Reports that federal agents had detained immigrants who posed no threat, who had committed no crime, whose children were Americans citizens, who were not targets of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A sense of confusion and panic throughout the community of immigration lawyers and activists wondering just what was going on, who was safe and who was not.
The arrest by ICE officials last week of more than 680 immigrants across the country has angered Democrats and advocates who fear that they represent the deployment of the “deportation force” that President Trump once promised as a candidate. But the raids are also familiar—they were a regular feature in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“If the question is, did this occur under Obama’s watch? The answer is absolutely yes,” Gutiérrez, the Illinois Democratic congressman and a longtime advocate of immigration reform, told me in a phone interview on Thursday morning. “But the next question we must ask: Did they cease to exist? The answer is absolutely yes.”
Gutiérrez and his allies in Congress and across the country are demanding answers from the Trump administration about last week’s raids. The overriding questions: Are these actions the result of a new policy setting broader priorities for deportation? Or is this merely the continuation of ICE’s mission under any president, Democrat or Republican, to enforce immigration laws and target, in particular, individuals who have committed crimes beyond their illegal entry into the United States?
Trump administration officials have said the raids were nothing new. John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, said in a statement that more than 75 percent of those apprehended were convicted criminals. “ICE conducts these kind of targeted enforcement operations regularly and has for many years,” Kelly said. “The focus of these enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations teams on a daily basis.” The department also listed several other, similar enforcement actions that occurred during the second term of the Obama administration.
But isolated reports about the kind of immigrants ICE had detained suggested to Democrats that this was something much more aggressive. Last week in Phoenix, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was deported after she went in for a routine immigration check-in stemming from a 2008 conviction for falsifying a Social Security number. In El Paso, Texas, a woman was arrested in a county courthouse just after she obtained a protective order against her boyfriend for domestic abuse. The government said she had already been deported and had crossed the border again. In Seattle, a 23-year-old man who had obtained a work permit under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was arrested; ICE accused him of having gang ties, but the man’s lawyer said the government made up the charge.
When we spoke on Thursday morning, Gutiérrez was livid over the cancellation of a meeting that ICE’s director, Thomas Homan, was scheduled to have with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus the day before. Later on Thursday, Gutiérrez and other House Democrats tried to attend a meeting Homan held with the bipartisan leadership. But staffers for Speaker Paul Ryan refused to let them enter, Gutiérrez tweeted.
After Obama took office, the government ramped up deportations as part of a political strategy aimed at enticing Republicans to negotiate a comprehensive reform measure, by proving to them that the new president was serious about enforcement and border security. Although the Senate passed bipartisan legislation in 2013, the tactic failed to move conservatives in the House and left Obama allies like Gutiérrez fuming. They protested outside the White House, and in 2014, the president of the National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguía, famously denounced Obama as the “deporter in chief.” Ultimately, Obama ordered a reorientation in enforcement priorities and took actions—which the courts have blocked—to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“Obama came to understand that his policies were wrong, and he changed them,” Gutiérrez recalled. “He grew, we grew, we grew together, we made America a better place for everyone.”
There is much less hope for immigration activists that Trump will come to change his mind, as he made the strict enforcement of immigration laws a centerpiece of his candidacy. What particularly angered Gutiérrez about the raids last week was the evidence that ICE agents were arresting people they hadn’t even targeted, what he called “collateral individuals.” He explained:
What that means is I come for “Juan Gonzalez,” right? And when I show up, and Juan Gonzalez is not there, I then proceed to ask, “Who are you? And who are you? And who are you, and who are you, and who are you?” Anybody else in the house in that time. And then if they can’t show sufficient paperwork to show they are legally in the United States, then they are processed for deportation. So no crime has been committed. They’re going after Individual A, but the mom, the dad, the children are then caught up in the visit, to put it mildly, of the ICE agents to that home. And that can happen either if they find Individual A, if they find Mr. Gonzalez, or if they don’t find Mr. Gonzalez. And that is something that had ceased to exist.
But, I asked, isn’t this exactly what Trump promised? Is this any different than what you expected on November 9? “It is, I believe, simply the tip of the spear,” Gutiérrez replied. “It’s the tip of the iceberg, the very tip of the spear. It’s going to get worse, I fear.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Russell Berman: Based on what you know at this moment, are these raids clearly part of a new policy ordered by the Trump administration, or are they, as DHS and ICE have suggested, just part of their ongoing efforts to enforce immigration laws?
Luis Gutiérrez: In that question lies our problem and dilemma. Because in an unprecedented move yesterday, they cancelled an agreed-upon meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in which we were going to ask those questions. Who are you picking up? Why are you picking them up? What are the charges being leveled against them? We wanted to ask all of those particular questions yesterday, and a couple hours before, they said, we’re not coming. Because somehow in their creativity and in their new reality, they said we can’t do this without Republicans. Well, that’s nonsense. The president, the administration meets with Democrats and Republicans and sometimes with one or the other. It just flies in the face of reality and past experience that they somehow needed to have Republicans to have balance. They just didn't want to have the meeting.
This is night and day. We used to have, not the head of ICE, we used to have Mr. [Jeh] Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, come and meet with us.
Here’s what I understand: Look, we know that given the priorities that were established under the Obama administration, people that we have read about [in] the papers should not have been the focus of any enforcement [action]. A woman who’s been here over 10 years and has consistently reported to immigration authorities and went back for a routine interview just last week. She was brought to the interview, thought she was just going to be interviewed—as she has done so many times in the past—and she was swiftly deported. Look, someone who made up a Social Security number is not a violent criminal. It’s a mom trying to raise her kids, and she was caught, she was coming before the authorities year in and year out, never a priority. She’s gone.
And the real problem here is, we hear cases where there’s a woman. She’s been abused. So we have spousal abuse here. We’ve seen these cases in the past where the man, the husband calls immigration after he abuses his wife and says she’s here undocumented. The police show up, and all of a sudden, the victim is the one who’s being deported from the United States. This is very, very serious. I know we had a Dreamer out in Seattle. He had deferred action. He had his work permit. He’s in the process of being deported. So what they are doing is very different in that they are going after collateral individuals.
Berman: Explain what that means, collateral individuals.
Gutiérrez: What that means is I come for “Juan Gonzalez,” right? And when I show up, and Juan Gonzalez is not there, I then proceed to ask, “Who are you? And who are you? And who are you, and who are you, and who are you?” Anybody else in the house in that time. And then if they can’t show sufficient paperwork to show they are legally in the United States, then they are processed for deportation. So no crime has been committed. They’re going after Individual A, but the mom, the dad, the children are then caught up in the visit, to put it mildly, of the ICE agents to that home. And that can happen either if they find Individual A, if they find Mr. Gonzalez, or if they don’t find Mr. Gonzalez. And that is something that had ceased to exist. You’re supposed to go after the person that’s on the warrant. I mean, there should be Fourth Amendment rights here. You got a warrant, you got a case, you go after that person named in the warrant. You don’t just pick up the rest of the family without any due process when they haven’t done anything.
Berman: You and other advocates were angry at the Obama administration for enforcement raids that occurred early in his tenure. How are these different? Did we have reports of these similar type of cases early on?
Gutiérrez: Yes, we did. We did.
Look, if the question is, Did this occur under Obama’s watch? The answer is absolutely yes. But the next question we must ask: Did they cease to exist? The answer is absolutely yes. Why? Because Obama was confronted by a community that supported him overwhelmingly. I did not have any happiness, joy, or zeal in my heart to be arrested in front of the White House, [occupied by the man] that I voted for, that I supported. But I had to. So were others. Obama came to understand that his policies were wrong, and he changed them. He grew, we grew, we grew together, we made America a better place for everyone.
Now what we are doing is we are turning the clock back. We are taking the progress that has been made, and we are turning the clock back. And so those instances of abuse that used to occur are now the norm once again. It reminds me of the sign at the Women’s March, maybe you saw it: ‘I’m Still Fighting for This?’ You know, it’s like you fight, you win, and then this new administration says you’ve got to fight it all over. It’s the same thing for Muslims. It’s the same thing for women and reproductive rights. You’re going to see this time and time again. The labor movement and being able to organize unions. The environmentalists. Just go to the Dakotas and ask the Native Americans. You’re going to have victories that are going to be reversed, which I believe the American people totally support.
Berman: Is this anything different than you expected on November 9? Isn’t this, for better or worse, what Donald Trump promised?
Gutiérrez: It is, I believe, simply the tip of the spear. It’s the tip of the iceberg, the very tip of the spear. It’s going to get worse, I fear.
Anybody that saw [Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller] last Sunday on the talk shows—he said you cannot question the authority of the president of the United States. You’re in no position. And I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s fascism.’ What happened to checks and balances? This is the same individual who worked for none other than our new attorney general as one of his chief aides in the Senate, who is now drafting the anti-immigration order. And who is joining him? The attorney general, in drafting that new order. So we have Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, who has never seen an immigrant that he liked or an immigrant proposal that he could support. Never, while he’s been a senator. Now he’s the attorney general, joined by Stephen Miller, his aide working out of the White House. What they have done in this White House is that Donald Trump has convened as his advisers, as his immigration committee, some of the worst anti-immigrant xenophobes ever put together for a president of the United States. That’s what he has. He has the anti-immigration dream team. That’s what he has there.
Berman: Let me put it to you another way: DHS and ICE are saying, for example, that the Dreamer who was arrested was a gang member. They said that the woman in El Paso who got a protective order from domestic abuse had previously been deported and returned. Aren’t these the type of people that they should be targeting? Haven’t Democrats like yourself said we should focus on criminals and repeat offenders?
Gutiérrez: Yes. And let me say this: A woman who’s deported and returns to her family to raise her children is an all-star mom, not somebody who should be a priority for deportation from the United States. That Dreamer had a work permit. He had gone through an exhaustive criminal-background check, and he paid for it. And now all of a sudden, they use this excuse. So I’m sorry if I don’t buy [it] when there is no process. What is the due process here? Where was the judge? Where was the jury? An ICE agent can, in and of themselves, simply revoke that person’s legality? That just seems fundamentally wrong in the United States of America, that someone comes before the American government, pays a fee, goes through an exhaustive background check. He gets a work permit, he gets a Social Security card, he’s cleared to stay in the United States, and then an individual just says, “Well, you’re a gang member.” Look, the young man has a lawyer. Here’s what I say: You can’t deport somebody without their day in court. That kid is legally in the United States of America. He did everything the government asked him to do in order to create a legality for himself, and that should not be taken away and usurped without his day in court.
Berman: Other Democrats and advocates are saying this is Trump’s “deportation force.” But you’re also acknowledging you don’t know if this is fundamentally different than what happened under Obama. Is there a risk that you guys are overreacting given that we’re only a month into the new administration? If the deportation force actually comes, won’t they just say you’re crying wolf again?
Gutiérrez: Here’s my point: They’re the ones that called the press conference. They’re the ones that sent out the press release. They’re the ones that said to a community of people, “We’re coming after you.” I’m sorry. I think we’ve all come to learn that we had better take Donald Trump at his word. We just all better come to know that.
Look, no one will stand up and complain because a criminal is deported from the United States of America. No one will. But I’m simply trying to tell you, and through you, the American public, there are people who have been deported, left behind their American-citizen children, their American-citizen spouses, and yes, they’ve come back. They did exactly what your readers would do if they were separated from their wives, if they were separated from their children, they would do everything that they could to get back to their children, to get back to their wives. The system is broken. It’s a broken system. Any comprehensive immigration-reform package, like the one that was passed in 2013—all of these things would have been forgiven in any comprehensive immigration reform package, and the people would have been led to legality. But of course the House of Representatives couldn’t do what the Senate did with nearly 70 votes. Bipartisan.
Berman: What is the best recourse for Democrats and advocates? Is it the courts? Is it the streets? Is it both?
Gutiérrez: You need to win in two different courts. You need to win immediately in the civil courts. But at the same time, you need to win in the court of public opinion, because the only way we’re going to stop this is by having more votes than they do, by going into an election in which we win, and in which we’re ultimately triumphant. In the meantime, let’s win in our court system and then let’s work and continue to grow, which I believe we are doing. The [women’s march] was such a wonderful cross-section of those that want transparency in their government and that don’t want to turn the clock back to when women were in the kitchen and blacks were in the back of the bus and Latinos were quiet and gays were in the closet. They love the America, that we’ve grown and fought for, of 2017.