NEW YORK (AP) — A daughter who never returned home, a son gunned down point-blank, a mom who was brutally attacked — all deaths at the hands of immigrants in the country illegally, all gripping stories the White House has been eager to share.
But for all the talk of murderers, rapists and other "bad hombres," those netted in President Donald Trump's crackdown on immigration are typically accused of lesser offenses, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are increasingly apprehending those with no criminal records at all.
"Unshackling ICE has really allowed it to go after more individuals," said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute who calls the apprehension of noncriminal immigrants, in particular, "a defining characteristic of this administration's approach to immigration."
The case of Mollie Tibbetts — a 20-year-old Iowa college student authorities say was killed by a man living in the U.S. illegally — is among the latest used by Trump to advance his argument for stricter immigration controls. Yet the government's own statistics show such cases are far more likely to be the exception than the rule.
ICE arrests of noncriminals increased 66 percent in the first nine months of the 2018 fiscal year over the same period a year earlier. Arrests of convicts, meantime, rose nearly 2 percent. More noncriminals have also been deported. Among those expelled from the U.S. interior in fiscal 2017, there was a 174 percent increase from the previous year of those with no criminal convictions. Deportations of those with convictions rose nearly 13 percent over the same period.
The result is immigration courts are filling with defendants like Ruben Moroyoqui, a 45-year-old mechanic in Tucson, Arizona, whose only run-in with police came last year, his attorney said, when he was pulled over while picking up auto parts.
First, the officer asked for his license. His second question, Moroyoqui said, was "Are you here legally?" He wasn't cited for any driving violation; he was simply handed over to ICE, which began proceedings to deport him to Mexico. An appeal is pending.
Moroyoqui entered the country with authorization 16 years ago but then overstayed his visa, not wanting to return home because of the lack of opportunity there. He has four U.S. citizen children and said he has always paid his taxes. "I feel great respect and love for this country," he said.
ICE has heralded its deportations of drug kingpins, violent gang members and others accused of serious offenses, and in the 2017 fiscal year, it reported that 56 percent of all deportees it processed — from the interior U.S. and border — had been convicted of crimes. But under Trump, as with prior administrations, when a deportee does have a criminal record, it's generally for lesser infractions.
Among more than 220,000 deportees in the 2017 fiscal year, 79,270 had no convictions, according to ICE data housed by the Transactional Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Of those with a record, according to the data, 1 in 4 had illegal entry or re-entry to the U.S. as their most serious offenses. Those two counts represented the first- and third-most common charges among deportees. Driving under the influence was second, followed by assault convictions and traffic offenses. Drug trafficking, burglary, domestic violence, larceny and selling marijuana rounded out the top 10 offenses.
The rest of those with a record were convicted of a wide range of misdeeds, both grave crimes like kidnapping and minor offenses including taking a joy ride, gambling or violating a fish conservation statute.
For Ariel Vences-Lopez, the charge that led him to deportation proceedings was an accusation of riding the light rail in Minneapolis last year without a ticket. After asking whether Vences-Lopez was in the country illegally, a transit officer used a Taser on him and arrested him on suspicion of fare evasion before turning him over to ICE. The charges were later dropped, but the 25-year-old roofer is still fighting his deportation back to Mexico. Proceedings have been put off until 2019.
Adriana Cerrillo, an immigrant advocate who took part in protests over the case and who has befriended Vences-Lopez, said the public should know how seldom those deported are actually accused of violent crimes.
"My mother's not a criminal. My sister's not a criminal," she said. She questions how many so-called "bad hombres" — a term Trump has used — are actually in the U.S. and urges Americans to think critically about the message being promulgated. "How do we say 'brainwashing' in a different term?"
Daniel Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said focusing solely on whether those in the country illegally have committed a serious crime ignores the law and that those residents should be deported regardless of whether they have a rap sheet. His group supports restrictive immigration measures.
"Who decided that the policy of the United States was that anybody could come into the country regardless of the law as long as you didn't commit a violent felony?" he asked.
Stein said many in the country illegally likely have committed crimes — including securing employment by fraudulent means — but haven't been caught yet. Ignoring that fact, he said, makes a mockery of immigration laws and encourages more people to break them.
Luis Alberto Enamorado Gomez, who left Honduras for the U.S. in 2005, was charged with a DUI in 2012 and ordered deported the following year, but because his case was considered a low priority under the administration of President Barack Obama, he never was forced to leave. That was common in the final two years of Obama's presidency, when ICE was directed to exercise discretion to defer action on certain migrants with standing removal orders, including those with citizen children and living in the U.S. prior to 2010.
That ended under Trump, and with new marching orders to prioritize any and all immigration cases, ICE followed up earlier this year and took Gomez into custody. He was held for about six weeks and is now fighting his deportation. The 31-year-old from Grandview, Missouri, said he fears what his removal would mean for his seven children, all U.S. citizens for whom he is the sole provider.
"How are we criminals when we just come here and work and provide for our families?" he asked.
With a spotlight on the separation of immigrant children and their parents this summer, Trump tried to refocus attention on dangerous immigrants by hosting a White House event with relatives of those killed by people in the country illegally. "These are the American citizens that are permanently separated from their loved ones," Trump said. "These are the stories that Democrats and the people that are weak on immigration, they don't want to discuss."
And yet the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape, are relatively rare among deportees. Studies also have found immigrants to the U.S. have a lower level of criminality than citizens. Living in the U.S. without authorization is generally a civil matter, while the act of crossing the border without permission may be prosecuted as a crime.
Some local law enforcement agencies partner with ICE and immediately alert the agency if an immigrant in the country illegally comes in contact with an officer — whether because they committed a crime or were a victim of one. Even without such cooperation, ICE can send its officers to courthouses when immigrants are scheduled to appear to apprehend them for deportation.
That's what happened to Nefi Rodas, a 34-year-old construction worker in Worcester, Massachusetts, who paid a smuggler to escape Guatemala in 2003. After he was cited last year for suspicion of driving under the influence, he went to court for a pre-arraignment appearance. ICE agents were waiting outside the building.
"We don't even know what to do as immigration attorneys," said Cindy Burke, who represents Rodas. "You have to show up to state court, but there's a good chance ICE is going to be waiting for you."
Because Rodas never made it to his hearing, a warrant was issued for his arrest, complicating his drunken driving case. He spent nearly four months in ICE custody, but deportation proceedings ended after a judge found that sending Rodas back to Guatemala would have caused undue hardship on his special-needs daughter. He is now a legal permanent resident of the U.S.
"One person does something, and it's as if we all have done it," he said of the inclination of some Americans to brand all without legal status as violent criminals. "I haven't murdered anybody. I haven't violated anybody."
The share of deportees not convicted of a crime was higher at the end of George W. Bush's presidency, when two-thirds had no record, according to ICE data. Total deportations reached a peak in the early years of the Obama administration — but the share of those people without a criminal record fell. Overall, when examining deportations of both those caught at the border and living within the country, the percentage of those with no conviction has increased slightly under Trump compared to Obama. But with increased arrests of immigrants already living in the U.S., experts expect the numbers to continue rising.
"We see ICE doing things that allows them to get the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, the easy enforcement," said Pierce, referring to arrests at ICE-mandated office check-ins, for example.
Melissa Aispuro, 20, of Tucson, Arizona, is another with no record to find herself in deportation proceedings. Aispuro has lived most of her life in the U.S. She was brought as a child and returned to Mexico for a time after high school before coming back in 2016. She entered legally with a border crossing card, but overstayed.
When her car was struck by another motorist last October, she didn't think anything of calling police. She hadn't even considered they would call ICE on someone with no criminal record who had just been in an accident.
"It's like really sad because not all of us are criminals. Some just come here for education, for a better life," said Aispuro, who is married to a U.S. citizen and fighting her deportation. "You can think whatever you want, but in my heart I know what I am."
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed reporting from Greensboro, North Carolina.
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