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ICE announces 128 immigration arrests in California ‘sanctuary’ cities, part of wider pre-election operation

Chad Wolf, acting homeland security secretary, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing in Washington in September. (Greg Nash/Pool/Reuters)
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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday that its officers made 128 arrests in three California cities during a recent five-day campaign targeting “sanctuary” jurisdictions, an operation with a publicity effort crafted to match President Trump’s campaign attacks on Democratic mayors.

The arrests during “Operation Rise” were made in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2, in what acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf said was “phase one” of a wider operation expanding to other cities.

Privately, ICE and DHS officials acknowledged that the number of suspects taken into custody so far by the “sanctuary op” did not amount to a major increase in arrests. The agency makes about 40,000 arrests per year at homes, work sites and public locations, or what ICE refers to as “at large” arrests.

Wolf said those arrested in California included immigrants convicted of homicide, sexual assault and other serious crimes, without offering a breakdown of how many of those arrested were violent offenders. The agency will continue to target criminals, he said, “with or without the help of local political leaders.”

“The job of President Trump, DHS and ICE is to fully enforce the law as it was written, not as certain politicians wish it were,” he said.

During his reelection bid, Trump has portrayed himself as a “law and order” candidate who will dominate protesters and deal firmly with a rise in crime that has occurred during his presidency. His campaign has particularly targeted cities with Democratic mayors for blame, especially those who have restricted cooperation between their police departments and ICE.

“All they need to do is call us before they release individuals,” said Tony Pham, the senior official performing the duties of the director at ICE, which does not have a Senate-confirmed leader or nominee. “Just a phone call, so we can help.”

While ICE officials have criticized sanctuary policies since the Obama administration, the messaging effort behind this month’s campaign has left critics warning a new line has been crossed in the deepening politicization of immigration enforcement during the Trump era.

ICE last week said it was paying for billboards in the Philadelphia area splashed with the mug shots of immigrants with criminal records who are wanted for deportation. The billboards are going up only in Pennsylvania, a swing state crucial to Trump’s reelection chances.

“This now reeks of federal dollars wasted for purely political gain,” said John Amaya, who was ICE deputy chief of staff during the Obama administration.

Amaya also said the results of the sanctuary op so far were another sign it has been more of a publicity campaign than a meaningful enforcement surge.

“While 100 arrests are horribly life-changing for the targets and their families, this is statistically insignificant as it relates to what ICE is capable of with ‘all hands on deck’ operations,” he said.

Trump has repeatedly promoted ICE operations during his presidency, while falling far short of his promise to summarily deport between 2 million and 3 million undocumented immigrants. The president has been so eager to show action on the issue that he tipped off a major ICE operation last year targeting Central American families who arrived during a record wave of migration by parents with children in 2019.

That effort was intended to take thousands of immigrant parents and children into custody, but it ended up falling far short of the goal.

Cities that have adopted sanctuary policies generally restrict or prohibit cooperation with ICE, a firewall that city officials argue is necessary to protect immigrants in their communities and dispel the fear that Trump’s rhetoric creates. While ICE officers retain the authority to arrest suspected immigration violators anywhere, the lack of cooperation makes officers’ work much more difficult and time-consuming.

DHS and ICE officials say those policies place the public at risk, because immigrants with criminal records who complete their jail sentences can be released instead of deported.

In his remarks to reporters, Wolf echoed a warning ICE officials have made to sanctuary jurisdictions for years, insisting their decision to eschew cooperation on immigration enforcement brings more federal officers to their cities, not fewer.

“Any local jurisdiction thinking that refusing to cooperate with ICE will result in a decrease in local immigration enforcement is mistaken,” he said. “ICE has no choice but to conduct more at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and work sites, which inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of targeted arrests where enforcement is safer for everyone involved.”

ICE generally takes immigrants into custody by placing “detainer” requests with jails and local police departments, which hold suspects until immigration officers come pick them up. When the detainers are not recognized, ICE officers have to find out when an immigrant will be released and await the suspect outside the jail or police station.