The Trump administration is deploying law enforcement tactical units from the southern border as part of a supercharged arrest operation in sanctuary cities across the country, an escalation in the president’s battle against localities that refuse to participate in immigration enforcement.
The specially trained officers are being sent to cities including Chicago and New York to boost the enforcement power of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, according to two officials who are familiar with the secret operation. Additional agents are expected to be sent to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark, New Jersey.
Lawrence Payne, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, confirmed the agency was deploying 100 officers to work with ICE, which conducts arrests in the interior of the country, “in order to enhance the integrity of the immigration system, protect public safety, and strengthen our national security.”
The deployment of the teams will run from February through May, according to an email sent to CBP personnel, which was read to The New York Times by one official familiar with the planning.
Among the agents being deployed to sanctuary cities are members of the elite tactical unit known as BORTAC, which acts essentially as the SWAT team of the Border Patrol. With additional gear such as stun grenades and enhanced Special Forces-type training, including sniper certification, the officers typically conduct high-risk operations targeting individuals who are known to be violent, many of them with extensive criminal records.
The unit’s work often takes place in the most rugged and swelteringly hot areas of the border. It can involve breaking into stash houses maintained by smuggling operations that are known to be filled with drugs and weapons.
In sanctuary cities, the BORTAC agents will be asked to support interior officers in run-of-the-mill immigration arrests, the officials said.
In a statement, ICE’s acting director, Matthew Albence, said the deployment comes in response to policies adopted by sanctuary cities, which have made it harder for immigration agents to do their jobs.
“As we have noted for years, in jurisdictions where we are not allowed to assume custody of aliens from jails, our officers are forced to make at-large arrests of criminal aliens who have been released into communities,” he said. “When sanctuary cities release these criminals back to the street, it increases the occurrence of preventable crimes, and more importantly, preventable victims.”
But Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner of CBP, which oversees tactical units along the border, said sending the officers to conduct immigration enforcement within cities, where they are not trained to work, could escalate situations that are already volatile. He called the move a “significant mistake.”
“If you were a police chief and you were going to make an apprehension for a relatively minor offense, you don’t send the SWAT team. And BORTAC is the SWAT team,” said Kerlikowske, who is the former chief of police in Seattle. “They’re trained for much more hazardous missions than this.”
ICE agents typically seek out people with criminal convictions or multiple immigration violations as their primary targets for deportation, but family members and friends are often swept up in the enforcement net in what are known as “collateral” arrests, and many such people could now be caught up in any enhanced operations.
ICE leadership requested the help in sanctuary jurisdictions because agents there often struggle to track down immigrants living in the country illegally without the help of the police and other state and local agencies. Law enforcement officers in areas that refuse to cooperate with ICE and the Border Patrol — which include both liberal and conservative parts of the country — often argue that doing so pushes people living in the country illegally further into the shadows, ultimately making cities less safe because that segment of the population becomes less likely to report crimes or cooperate with investigations.
The goal of the new joint operation, one of the officials said, was to increase arrests in the sanctuary jurisdictions by at least 35%.
Other recent attempts at aggressive enforcement by ICE have faltered, such as a series of raids targeting more than 2,000 migrant families that were planned during the summer of 2019. Trump’s advance warnings on Twitter led many of those who were targeted to refuse to open their front doors, and ultimately, only 35 of those who had been targeted were arrested in the operation’s first several weeks.
Even with the added show of force from BORTAC, agents will be limited in their abilities compared to the police or sheriff’s deputies. Unlike operations on the border, where BORTAC agents may engage in armed confrontations with drug-smuggling suspects using armored vehicles, immigration agents in cities are enforcing civil, rather than criminal, infractions. They are not allowed to forcibly enter properties in order to make arrests, and the presence of BORTAC agents, while helpful in boosting the number of agents on the ground, may prove most useful for the visual message it sends.
Many ICE agents say their jobs have become increasingly difficult, three years into Trump’s presidency, because of robust campaigns by immigrant advocacy organizations seeking to safeguard immigrants living in the country illegally by educating them on the legal limitations that ICE officers face. As a result, in many communities where immigrants living in the country illegally reside, when ICE agents are spotted, people now turn immediately to their phones to alert neighbors that they should stay inside.