Nebert Adala had a tough decision to make in 2014 when he found out his work visa would not be renewed.
Adala, a Kenyan immigrant, had arrived in the country about five years earlier and just begun to settle down in Tulsa. He studied radiological technology at Tulsa Tech and Hillcrest Medical Center, got married and found a job in assisted-living care.
Adala, now 41, knew he could voluntarily return to his home country, where he hadn’t lived in years. Or he could stay in the United States and hope his clean criminal record would allow him to avoid government attention while he tried to pursue citizenship.
That hope withered when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents greeted him as he arrived at work one morning in late 2016.
After a short jail stay and a fruitless, expensive legal challenge, Adala was detained again last year and put on a plane bound for Kenya, where he remains today.
“He wasn’t doing drugs. He wasn’t hurting anyone,” said Adala’s sister, 39, a Tulsa resident and fellow Kenyan immigrant who spoke to Oklahoma Watch on the condition of anonymity because she is afraid what could happen if she falls out of compliance with the law. “He wasn’t a criminal. His only crime was just wanting to stay and work here.”
Adala’s story is becoming increasingly common.
Of the 9,201 ICE arrests in Oklahoma between October 2014 and May 2018 — a period reviewed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse — 20% of those arrested had no criminal record and 36% had only a misdemeanor conviction.
Under President Donald Trump, these arrests are becoming more frequent. A recent analysis from NBC News found ICE arrests of undocumented workers without criminal records jumped from 19,128 to 58,010, or by 203%, during the first 14 months of Trump’s presidency over the previous 14 months of the Obama administration.
As ICE began carrying out raids across the country Sunday with a goal of rounding up thousands of undocumented families, local activists say the shift away from mainly targeting those with serious criminal records is increasing fear and concern throughout the immigrant community.
“I think there is this narrative that they are only going after these hardened criminals — gang members, child molesters and murders,” said Linda Allegro, executive director of the New Sanctuary Network, a pro-immigrant group based in Tulsa. “But what we are seeing is that just a lot of everyday people are getting swept up in this.”
The crisis at the border, where a surge of migrants has overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and the administration’s treatment of unaccompanied minors and others has ignited protests, has dominated the immigration debate in recent months.
Less conspicuous is ICE’s continued large presence in the interior of the country.
The agency’s latest enforcement report shows it arrested 105,140 immigration violators in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, 2018. That’s up 10% over the previous year and 44% over fiscal 2016. The report indicates ICE is also more frequently targeting those without a criminal conviction. In 2018, 34% of those arrested had no criminal record, up from 14% in 2016.
The data is more striking for at-large arrests, which occur in the community, including the home and workplace. Custodial arrests, by contrast, occur when local or state authorities turn over undocumented immigrants to ICE.
Of the 40,536 at-large community arrests in fiscal 2018, 43% didn’t have a criminal record, up from 18% in 2016.
The trend also is evident in Oklahoma, according to an analysis of records obtained by Syracuse University’s clearinghouse.
From October 2014 to the end of Obama’s term in January 2017, ICE arrested in Oklahoma an average of nearly 22 people per month who did not have a previous criminal conviction, the data shows. Under Trump, the number jumped to 53 arrests per month through May 2018, the latest month with available data.
The increase came after Trump signed an executive order early in his presidency that expanded the “enforcement priority” list for the Department of Homeland Security. That list grew to cover those who committed any criminal offense or who falsely represented their ability to work legally. Trump called for hiring an extra 10,000 ICE agents.
The president has repeatedly said he wants ICE to prioritize removing dangerous criminals from the U.S. But he also has made it no secret others without a criminal record or with minor convictions are not immune from deportation.
“When people come into our Country illegally, they will be DEPORTED!,” the president tweeted on June 22. “These are the people that are supposed to go back to their home country.”
Local and state police also play a key role in determining who might be deported.
Three Oklahoma law enforcement agencies — Canadian County Sheriff’s Office, Okmulgee County Criminal Justice Authority and Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office — have Section 287(g) partnerships that allow ICE to deputize local officers to identify and process undocumented residents picked up on criminal offenses.
Other law enforcement groups participate in the Criminal Alien Program, which gives ICE access to suspects’ names, fingerprints and other information when they’re booked into jails or prisons. They also can potentially be transferred to ICE custody.
Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Capt. Bo Mathews said outside of providing backup or logistical assistance to ICE, officers don’t actively search for undocumented residents.
“You’re not going to see us kicking in doors,” he said. “We don’t arrest someone for just being undocumented.”
But if officers arrest someone on an unrelated criminal charge, Mathews said, jail staff will contact ICE, and it can order the person to be detained for up to 48 hours.
The debate over who should be targeted for deportation has divided Republicans and Democrats.
Many Republicans say illicit entry into the country, or staying here beyond the permitted time, is a defiance of the law and lenient enforcement is bad policy and makes a mockery of sovereign borders. Many Democrats say overzealous deportation can easily become inhumane, leading to deaths, disrupting families and expelling hard-working members of the community.
Adala’s sister, a 39-year-old caregiver, is focused mainly on the tenuous foothold she still has on a better life here and the one her brother has painfully lost.
Her brother has battled depression and other hardships since moving back to Kenya, she said. While she waits to see if her legal status will be extended, the ordeal has made her rethink her future here.
“I’m in my late 30s, but I don’t know if I want to fall in love and get married, because who would want me with all this baggage?” she said. “I don’t regret coming here at all, but I do regret not being able to get married, start a family and finally give my mom some grandkids.”
Pryor resident Tracy Garcia also is dealing with the aftershocks of a family member’s deportation.
Garcia said her 25-year-old stepson, Jose Garcia, was deported to his native country of Mexico earlier this year after he was transferred to ICE custody.
He had been stopped for a minor traffic violation and was arrested for driving without a license.
Tracy Garcia said her stepson was making about $1,200 a week in construction work before the arrest. Now he’s making $98 a week in Mexico.
“The bottom line is you can’t survive on that money,” she said. “They just herded him on to a bus, dropped him off over the border and didn’t care that he didn’t have a dime in his pocket.”
The fear of raids
The last month has been a busy time for Cynthia Garcia, deportation defense director for Dream Action Oklahoma, a nonprofit group that works with the Oklahoma City immigrant community.
When Trump announced last month that ICE would begin immigration raids in major cities, she and other volunteers began fielding calls, arranging for access to lawyers for at-risk families and helping advise people of their rights.
It wasn’t clear how many people would be targeted in the raids or whether Oklahoma would be a focus. Media reports indicate only a relatively small number of arrests occurred Sunday throughout the country, but the threat looms that ICE could accelerate these raids in the days or weeks to come.
This has put many immigrants on “high alert,” whether they have a criminal record or not, Cynthia Garcia said.
“This administration sees immigration as a crime,” she said, “and criminalizing immigration has turned into the weapon … (for) targeting our people.”
Allegro, executive director of Tulsa’s New Sanctuary Network, fears the raids could cause people not to seek medical care, report crimes, go to work or be around their children.
“Everything will be clouded for them,” she said. “It’s going to be like they are not free and they don’t have the same rights as everyone else.”