By Sue Horton
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – An hour before dawn on May 11, a team of 10 officers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began assembling outside a coffee shop in the Southern California beach community of San Clemente.
The officers were about to embark on a targeted enforcement action, aiming to pick up five men believed to be in violation of U.S. immigration laws. The men had all been convicted of crimes, ranging from drunk driving to attempted murder, making them high priority targets for deportation.
The first stop was an apartment building not far from the coffee shop, where the armed agents arrested a 35-year-old immigrant from Iran who had served a year in jail on an attempted murder conviction.
Although he was not a citizen, the man was living in the United States with a so-called “green card” that allowed him legal residence and a path to eventual citizenship. Such legal residents can have their status revoked and be deported if they commit certain types of crimes.
It was still early morning when the officers pulled up to a waterfront home about 30 miles away in Newport Beach, where they found Adalberto Magana-Gonzalez, who had been hired to work on a boat docked behind the house.
The native of Mexico said in an interview with reporters after his arrest that he had expected ICE to come one day. By his estimate, he had illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seven times, and he had been previously deported. Recently, he had served time in a U.S. jail for burglary and domestic violence.
Magana-Gonzalez said he knew his prior deportation and criminal conviction made him a target for ICE, but he had hoped “to stay until my daughter’s 18th birthday.” He offered few details about his family.
By morning’s end, the agents had arrested three of the men for whom they were looking. Two others could not be found.
About 90 percent of the immigrants apprehended by ICE in the Los Angeles area have committed crimes, according to agency data that goes through April 29.
“Taking them off the streets is protecting everybody,” said David Marin, director of enforcement and removal operations for the Los Angeles field office.
Since President Donald Trump took office, Marin said, some policies have changed. “In the past administration, there were classes of aliens that were exempt from being arrested,” he said. Trump has reversed some Obama immigration policies and has said that anyone who is in the United States illegally could face deportation.
The policy shift, Marin said, has given officers “more pride in their job,” but has not really changed things operationally in Southern California, where the focus is still on deporting criminals.
ICE announced on Wednesday that nationwide arrests were up nearly 40 percent over last year, but in Los Angeles, they have remained at about the same level, according to ICE data.
ICE critics note that not all regional offices are as selective about whom they arrest.
Since Trump took office, about one-third of those picked up nationally by the agency’s enforcement and removal operations do not have criminal records, according to ICE data. That represents a sharp uptick over 2015 and 2016, but it is about the same percentage as 2014 of arrests of non-criminals.
Immigrants with criminal records arrested by ICE usually “understand that what we are doing is just a byproduct of the acts they committed,” said Jorge Field, acting deputy director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE in Los Angeles. “Their criminal acts made them removable.”
Since Magana-Gonzalez’s arrest, his case has been accepted for prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office, and he will face federal criminal charges for felony re-entry after deportation.
Magana-Gonzalez said he does not resent the agents for doing their job, but he does have regrets. To other immigrants in his situation, he had three words of advice: “Don’t make trouble.”
(Reporting by Sue Horton; Editing by Leslie Adler)