As Immigrants Become More Aware of Their Rights, ICE Steps Up Ruses and Surveillance
ICE’s use of ruses — an old tactic in which agents use false pretenses to make arrests, such as posing as local law enforcement or a representative of a company — has been more noticeable in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s repeated threats this summer to round up immigrants in 10 major U.S. cities. While the mass arrests have yet to materialize, ICE’s enforcement operations have continued, and immigrant communities are on alert. Reports of ICE sightings and arrests have been pouring into immigration advocacy groups.
“ICE’s mission is to apprehend people that it believes shouldn’t be in our communities and it will go to great lengths to do that, particularly in the face of increased knowledge of rights, and willing to bend what we would accept as moral standards of transparency and respect to meet those ends,” said Laura Williamson, an organizer with Sanctuary DMV, a volunteer group in the Washington, D.C., area that runs a rapid response network for ICE raids and an accompaniment program for immigrants attending court hearings or immigration appointments. “We know that, we have seen ICE lie about who it is when it knocks on the door, and we have seen ICE dress up as law enforcement or dress down as normal people.”
Williamson added that the number of so-called collateral arrests — where others present are arrested alongside targeted individuals — has also ramped up. ICE arrested 18 people out of a target list of around 2,000 families earlier this month, along with 17 others who were not targets of the operation. At the same time, a heightened awareness among immigrants of their rights has foiled some of the agency’s arrest attempts.
ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment, which included a list of questions.
Under Trump, immigration arrests have steadily risen, expanding their targets to anyone in the country without proper documents. In the latest indication of the Trump administration’s desire to continue the upward trajectory of deportations, the Department of Homeland Security announced on July 22 its intent to expedite the deportation of immigrants who could not prove they’d been in the U.S. continuously for more than two years.
At the same time, ICE has intensified its use of tactics designed to create confusion and fear in communities, and the agency’s ruses have grown more various and elaborate. Advocates say that ICE agents are more boldly impersonating police officers, potential employers, and normal citizens. They are increasingly using surveillance tactics, following immigrants and detaining them on their way to work, in traffic stops, and on the street. And they are upping their presence at courthouses — if not to make arrests, then to surveil or visually ID immigrants. In New York, for example, from 2016 to 2018, the number of ICE arrests in and around courthouses grew by 1,700 percent.
Despite the Trump administration’s repeated rhetoric about public safety as the rationale for deporting people en masse, even its most hyped operations don’t focus on immigrants with criminal convictions. July’s announced push was focused on individuals who had received final orders of deportation. That category certainly does not preclude people with criminal records, but it also includes many who may not have broken any laws besides ignoring that order — encouraging the perception that all undocumented people are criminals, simply by being here.
ICE’s methods are designed not simply to arrest and deport, but to confuse and terrorize the communities it enters. ICE agents commonly show up at homes early in the morning, when residents are waking up and disoriented, to make arrests. ICE agents, whose authority is generally more limited than that of the police, have a long history of posing as officers to detain immigrants. Ruses include tactics such as wearing shirts or vests that say “police,” yelling “police” at the door of an apartment building, or simply failing to identify themselves as ICE agents.
“They come to the door and they mimic local law enforcement,” wearing dark navy blue and presenting themselves as such, said Genia Blaser, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project in New York. Blaser said that there are two common tactics the agency uses involving decoy photos. In the first instance, agents will show a photo of a person, unknown to the residents they’re speaking with, and with a name they don’t recognize. The agents will then say they are attempting to verify that no one at the residence fits the description, and the targets will give them access to the home. The officials will then proceed to detain the people living there. The other tactic, she said, is to use a photo of someone else but with a resident’s name.
In 2017, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to Congress that would have prevented ICE officers from wearing uniforms that say “police.” The bill got little traction, but Velazquez reintroduced it earlier this month. Velazquez has noted that ICE’s tactics could erode law enforcement’s trust with communities. “I’ve heard firsthand from families who fear reporting crime or engaging with the police due to the potential of getting caught up with immigration agents,” she said in a 2017 statement. “This only makes our communities less safe.”
Since then, ruses have only gotten more elaborate. The Immigrant Defense Project, a legal advocacy organization that serves attorneys and impacted communities in New York state, has documented more than 1,000 ICE raids in New York state since 2013. There was a case last year in which ICE posed as someone from the local DA’s office, Blaser said, and tried to arrange a meeting on a street corner to talk about a case. There have been other cases, she said, when ICE has called claiming to want to return a lost ID.
While efforts to pressure local law enforcement not to cooperate with ICE have been successful in some areas, it’s not clear that the police or local agencies are aware when ICE uses their likenesses — in apparent conflict with the 2005 memo. In New York, “the local precinct often will have no idea what’s going on,” Blaser said.
Sometimes, agents clarify that they are immigration agents only after an arrest is made. The National Immigration Justice Center filed a lawsuit in December 2018 against officers for allegedly conducting traffic stops without pretext. The suit documents two instances in which ICE agents wore vests that said “police,” and did not identify themselves as ICE, to conduct traffic stops in Chicago and detain those inside the vehicles. The suit is still being litigated, but the plaintiffs allege that “individuals were led to believe they were interacting with Chicago Police officers until they were taken to the ICE office in downtown Chicago,” Tara Tidwell-Cullen, director of communications for the National Immigrant Justice Center, wrote in an email.
In Tennessee, ICE agents stopped drivers for minor traffic violations on July 12, according to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, an immigrant-led group that provides legal services to immigrants and advocates on their behalf to the state legislature. “The sheriff’s officers did not charge the drivers with any crime or bring them into local custody, but instead called ICE agents to the scene,” the group said in a statement. “It appears that ICE agents were essentially on call and ready to pick up individuals who were stopped by sheriff’s deputies.”
The coalition and the Southern Poverty Law Center are investigating the apparent collaboration between the sheriff’s office and ICE. “These arrests are a direct result of an emboldened ICE and local law enforcement who saw the president’s threats as an opportunity to harass immigrant communities,” said Meredith Stewart, senior supervising attorney with SPLC.
There are also cases in which ICE agents work in plainclothes to surreptitiously gain entry into residences and buildings or to convince immigrants to meet them. Last summer, Blaser said, in one of the more elaborate ruses that the Immigrant Defense Project is aware of, someone pretending to be looking for a contractor to work on his house in Newburgh, New York, made an appointment with the immigrant to give an estimate. When he came to the worksite with a colleague, the man, wearing paint-splattered pants, asked him to stick around, saying, according to Blaser, “Our boss is on their way, and I know they’re going to want to talk to you.” Then, an unmarked van came up and arrested the targeted person.
Plainclothes ruses, too, seem to be standard practice. In 2017, a man was arrested by plainclothes officers in Oregon, where he was working on a house. In February, there were reports in North Carolina that ICE agents had posed as day laborers, wearing bandanas and driving a van that had ladders affixed. In response, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said that the agency is “non-uniformed.”
Nikki Marín Baena, who works for the national organization Mijente and is a volunteer with Siembra in North Carolina, sees the ruses and detainments on the way to work as a response to immigrants increasingly being aware of their rights. Now that more immigrants know not to open the door, Marín Baena said, the direct result is an increase in deceptive tactics by ICE.
Increasingly, she said, a large number of arrests have been made while folks are on their way to work — which indicates that ICE agents are increasingly following and surveilling their targets before making an arrest. They’ve warned community members to look out for American-made cars with dark tinted windows. When asked whether community members she works with are aware of the surveillance component, Marín Baena said, “People are starting to notice ‘How did they know that? How did they know people would be there at that time?’”
Surveillance also appears to be a growing component of ICE’s approach. Last week, WNYC reported that Palantir, a software company co-founded by billionaire Trump adviser Peter Thiel, is enabling ICE to easily access available data about its targets, including photos from driver’s licenses. (Palantir was previously revealed to be facilitating the arrests of family members of children who crossed the border alone.) And, according to documents acquired by the American Civil Liberties Union in March, ICE is also using readers to read and log license plates in a database.
To underscore the absurdity ICE’s use of surveillance — an expensive endeavor — to go after undocumented people who have done nothing but ignore their final notice of deportation, a civil offense, Marín Baena drew a comparison to tax evasion. “It’s kind of like the IRS issuing administrative warrants for everyone who didn’t file a 1099, and then spending money to go after every single one,” she said.
“The U.S. is the world’s largest detention and deportation system, and an inordinate amount of money is extended into it,” Blaser said. “It’s really a moment to step back and ask ourselves to reevaluate the system and what’s the purpose of such a system that deprives individuals and communities of human rights and dignity and totally dehumanizes groups of people.”
Nausicaa Renner is the Senior Politics Editor. She was previously the digital editor at Columbia Journalism Review. She was also a senior editor at n+1. Prior to that, she was an associate editor at Boston Review. She is a Chicago native and a graduate of the University of Chicago.