US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers detain a suspect during an enforcement operation in Los Angeles, on February 7, 2017
New York (AFP) - US immigration agents increasingly are detaining unauthorized migrants in or near places once considered "safe" like courthouses and churches, spreading panic among migrants and outrage among activists.
Since taking office on an "America First" agenda, President Donald Trump has made immigration a policy cornerstone, granting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents broad authority to detain and deport unauthorized migrants.
The massive deportations feared under Trump have not materialized -- in fact, deportation numbers are similar to those under former president Barack Obama.
However, ICE agents are now targeting places that used to be respected as sanctuaries of sorts, and have dropped guidelines urging a focus only on serious criminals.
The result: all undocumented migrants can be equally targeted.
One recent high-profile detention was of 'Dreamer' Daniela Vargas, 22, who was born in Argentina and came to the United States as a child.
When ICE agents came to her home to arrest her father and brother, both undocumented migrants, Vargas escaped by hiding in a closet.
The agents however got a second chance on Wednesday after Vargas spoke out against deportations at a press conference in Jackson, in the southern state of Mississippi.
- 'Disturbing' -
"Disturbing that ICE may have followed her from an immigration news conference," wrote Democratic Senator Ricard Durbin on Twitter, commenting on Vargas' quick arrest.
Vargas had been living in the United States protected by a 2012 decree signed by Obama known as DACA. The decree authorizes people who were brought into the country as children, and grew up as Americans, to remain and work in the United States.
Some 750,000 young people, known as 'Dreamers,' signed up for the program.
Vargas, however, let her 'Dreamer' status expire, and was working to save money to pay the renewal fee when ICE agents swooped in and detained her.
According to Vargas's attorneys, ICE agents plan to deport her without a hearing with an immigration judge.
"ICE has no shame," said Yatziri Tovar, another 'Dreamer' who works for the pro-immigrant NGO Make the Road New York.
"This rogue agency has now detained another Dreamer ... apparently, for exercising her First Amendment rights," she said, a reference to the right under the US Constitution to freedom of expression.
Trump has said contradictory things about the DACA program since taking office on January 20.
During the presidential campaign he insisted that he was not ready to give them an "illegal amnesty," but in mid-February he said he will "show great heart" in dealing with 'Dreamers.'
"Donald Trump can try to confuse people as much as he likes by saying nice things about Dreamers," said Tovar, "but the fact is that the agency he oversees is now targeting immigrant youth and tearing them from their families."
Her group demands Vargas' "immediate release."
The government says that Vargas is not entitled to a hearing because "she's a visa waiver program overstay," attorney Patricia Ice, who heads a local immigration rights group, told AFP.
US immigration authorities did not respond to AFP's request to comment on the case.
- 'Blank check' -
Emboldened by Trump's decree -- which authorizes immigration agents to deport even undocumented people suspected of crimes they have not been charged with -- authorities recently detained people seeking shelter on a cold winter day at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside the US capital.
Also taken into custody for deportation: a woman who went to court in El Paso, Texas to file a complaint about domestic abuse.
In another recent case agents boarded an domestic flight that landed at New York's JFK airport and checked every passenger's identification documents.
"There is certainly a more aggressive attitude by immigration agents as they feel they will no longer be held accountable if they target 'sensitive areas' as churches, schools, etc were often called," said Cesar Vargas, the first openly undocumented New York attorney.
"Trump has giving the agents a blank check to do as they see fit with almost unfettered discretion granted to the agents. Looks like Trump is fine with targeting violent criminals and mothers," said Vargas, founder of the DREAM Action Coalition which supports immigration reform.
The biggest fear of the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States is to have their families broken up.
Jeanette Vizguerra, another woman fleeing from ICE agents attempting to deport her, has taken refuge in a Denver, Colorado church with her three young children.
"I'm ready to sacrifice whatever is necessary to be with my children," Vizguerra, 47, told AFP.
Also arrested in recent weeks was Mexico-born Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23 year-old 'Dreamer' living in Seattle, in the northwestern state of Washington.
ICE agents detained Ramirez, who came to the United States at the age of seven, even though his DACA authorization was still valid.
Immigration agents swept into his home to pick up his father, and claimed that Ramirez confessed to belonging to a gang.
Ramirez, who has no criminal background, denies the charges.