A previously unpublished Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo ordered immigration agents to detain any undocumented immigrants they encountered, regardless of whether they had a criminal record. The directive likely influenced the spike in immigration arrests since President Donald Trump assumed office.
On July 7, ProPublica obtained a previously undisclosed memo penned by ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) director, Matthew Albence, ordering 5,700 deportation officers to arrest undocumented immigrants indiscriminately.
On Feb. 21, Albence wrote that "effective immediately, ERO officers will take enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties."
Such a memo would not have likely been drafted under the Obama administration, which prioritized the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants who had committed felonies and high-class misdemeanors. That approach changed after Trump entered the White House.
On Jan. 25, Trump signed an executive order expanding the authority of ICE agents. The directive dramatically broadened the criteria for priority detainment.
At the time, legal expert Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation observed that Trump's executive action made virtually every undocumented immigrant a priority for ICE agents.
"I think it covers just about every illegal alien in the country," Spakovsky told CNN. "It's also very clear that the No. 1 priority is people who have been charged and convicted with criminal offenses, and that's the kind of violent criminals who should be out of the country."
On Feb. 20, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly submitted a memo that told federal agencies that immigration agents may detain undocumented immigrants regardless of criminal history. The operative word in that memo was reportedly "may."
Albence's memo, which was issued the next day and without public disclosure, made it definitive policy that ICE agents could detain any and all undocumented immigrants that they could find.
ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez asserted that Albence's memo did not contradict the language used by Kelly.
"The memo directly supports the directions handed down in the executive orders and mirrors the language ICE consistently uses to describe its enforcement posture," Rodriguez said in a statement. The spokesperson added that "ICE prioritizes the arrest and removal of national security and public safety threats; however, no class or category of alien in the United States is exempt from arrest or removal."
Former ICE director Sarah Saldana of the Obama administration was not convinced.
"When you use the word 'will' instead of 'may' you are taking it a step further," Saldana said. "This is an importance directive and people at ERO are bound this directive unless someone above Matt Albence comes back and says, 'You went too far.' I don't think you are going to find that person in this administration."
From Jan. 22 through April 29, ICE agents arrested 41,318 undocumented immigrants, an increase of 38 percent compared to the same timeframe in 2016. And 25 percent of those arrested did not have a criminal record. Supporters of Trump's immigration policies heralded the increase in arrests as a mark of progress, while Immigrants' Right Project director Omar Jadwat of the American Civil Liberties Union asserted that it was a sign that ICE was showing no restraint.
"What it tells me is that the department is willing to put enforcement numbers ahead of any kinds of strategy that would actually try to keep us all safer going forward," Jadwat told The New York Times.