ALBIN — Rosie and Martín Aguilar returned home from work one day this month to the sight of their five-year-old son fearfully peeking out through cracked blinds, afraid to open the door even for his own parents.
The Aguilars had heard U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers were in Albin, a quiet agrarian town in southeast Wyoming where they’ve lived for 14 years. The parents called home and told their children not to open the door for anyone. The Aguilars, who agreed to speak with WyoFile under a false name to protect their identity, are undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
The Aguilars never learned if ICE was actually in town that day or if it was just a rumor, but anecdotal reports of arrests around the state have kept them, and their community, on edge.
In fact, data from the agency show that arrests of undocumented immigrants in the region have increased in the last six months. The numbers, and statements from Washington, suggest the rising fears of undocumented families and their supporters are not unfounded.
In Jackson, four people were detained by ICE officers on June 20. They were joined by two more detainees — arrested in Cody and brought to the Jackson jail by ICE — before all six men were sent to a detention center elsewhere in the U.S., according to Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen. That comes on top of four ICE detentions in April, Whalen said.
In Casper, four people have been held in jail after being arrested by ICE in the past two weeks, in what is referred to as an “immigration hold,” said Dalia Pedro, an activist with the Immigration Alliance of Casper. The Natrona County Sheriff’s Department confirmed those incidents and added one more — they received four immigration holds at the detention center there on June 13, and one more on the 14th, Sergeant of Investigations Aaron Shatto said.
Shatto and Whalen both said the recent ICE detentions in their respective counties weren’t out of the ordinary. But ICE data show a definite increase in enforcement action by ICE, in keeping with the new administration’s promises of tougher immigration policies.
Both detentions and deportations more than doubled in Wyoming and Colorado between Jan. 20 and April 29, 2017, compared to the same period last year.
New priorities for ICE
President Trump has suggested a strategy of pursuing immigrant “bad hombres” and criminals in order to make the country safer. But the number of people arrested who did not have a criminal history has risen dramatically — 28 people were jailed in Wyoming and Colorado without a criminal record in the above time frame of 2016, compared to 134 people without a record since Trump’s inauguration, a nearly five-fold increase. Deportations of those without criminal histories more than doubled from 121 in 2016 to 299 this year.
The numbers, originally reported by Colorado Public Radio and confirmed to WyoFile by an ICE spokesperson, cover an ICE “area of responsibility” headquartered in Denver, that encompasses the two states. ICE doesn’t report state-specific figures for Wyoming. Figures for May and June are not yet available.
For critics of the president’s immigration rhetoric and policies, it’s logical that more people without criminal records would get deported as restrictions on ICE are loosened.
“Who’s easier to get? The convicted felon or grandma?” said Travis Helm, an immigration attorney in Laramie.
Jose Diaz, a 26-year-old undocumented immigrant, also agreed to speak with WyoFile using a pseudonym. An ICE visit, even one looking specifically for a certain person with a criminal record, could lead to his family and friends being accidentally caught in the net, he said. Speaking at a public park in Albin, he gestured to friends and neighbors gathered with him, some of whom were unlawfully in the country.
“Let’s say we’re right here,” he said, “and I’m a criminal and they grab me … they’re not going to leave everyone else here. They’re going [to detention or deportation] too. Because they don’t have papers. And they’re not criminals.”
Speaking before the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 13, Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE lent credence to that theory.
Homan insisted ICE does prioritize people with criminal records, but said that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring everyone else who might be in the country illegally. If a search for an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record leads to a home full of people without criminal records, but without documentation either, ICE will make arrests, Homan said.
“If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country you should be uncomfortable,” Homan said. “You should look over your shoulder and you need to be worried.”
For the Aguilars, the stakes of deportation could be high. Chihuahua, the state in Mexico they’re from, has gotten increasingly more violent, Martín said.
Rosie worries about what would become of her children if her family went to Mexico. When you return from many years spent in the U.S., she said, it’s assumed you have some money. Your children can then become the target of kidnapping and ransom schemes run by organized criminals.
“We’re safer here,” she said, even if now they feel less safe than before.