More than 300 immigrants have been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the past month in a series of raids across the country. ICE, a master of its own propaganda, has issued a press release after each big raid, patting itself on the back for getting criminals off the streets. In the numerous releases detailing these arrests, a litany of offenses ranging from illegal entry — the crime of entering the country without authorization — and homicide are given equal weight. ICE rarely discloses how many immigrants are convicted of the crimes listed or when they happened, giving the impression that homicidal immigrants are just as common as those who are caught driving without a license or under the influence of alcohol.
All of this wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary if media outlets weren’t repeating the agency’s talking points almost verbatim.
Between April 17 and 21, ICE arrested 95 people in southeast Texas. According to a press release, 82 of the 95 people detained in Texas had prior convictions for crimes including “homicide, aggravated assault, burglary of a vehicle, child abuse, domestic violence, cocaine possession, fraud, driving under the influence, drug trafficking, felony marijuana possession, illegal entry, larceny, possessing a controlled substance, and weapons possession.” Thirteen others were arrested for “immigration violations.”
Local media, including Click2Houston, Houston Public Media, and Fox26 Houston repeated the same information provided in the press release without, it seems, bothering to do any actual reporting to place the arrests in context, especially when it comes to the arrested’s past convictions.
Media outlets are reprinting ICE press releases without context.
ICE selected five immigrants to highlight in its release, all of whom were mentioned in the Click2Houston story. Here’s ICE’s summary of one of the arrests:
“A 32-year-old citizen of Mexico was arrested without incident in Houston. A Barrio North Side gang member with convictions for marijuana possession, unlawfully carrying a firearm and evading arrest. He was previously removed from the United States in September 2006.”
Click2Houston’s reporting was nearly identical to the language in the release:
“A 32-year-old citizen of Mexico was arrested without incident in Houston on April 19. He is a Barrio North Side gang member with convictions for marijuana possession, unlawfully carrying a firearm and evading arrest, according to authorities. He was previously removed from the United States in September 2006.”
“Ninety-five people were arrested in Southeast Texas during a 5-day ICE operation targeting ‘criminal aliens, illegal re-entrants and immigration fugitives,’ according to U.S. Immigration and Custom's [sic] Enforcement.”
Compare that to ICE’s press release:
“Federal officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) arrested 95 criminal aliens and others throughout Southeast Texas during a five-day enforcement action which ended Friday.”
Fox26 noted also that “all of the individuals target [sic] by the operation had prior criminal convictions, and 82 of the 95 arrested had criminal histories.” Houston Public Media didn’t detail the full list of crimes included in the ICE release, but did write, “The agency said in a press release on Monday that almost all of the arrested immigrants had criminal histories with convictions including homicide, aggravated assault, burglary, child abuse, domestic violence, and marijuana possession.”
The Houston Chronicle rightly noted that “[f]ew details were provided about the Houston area raids” and acknowledged that immigration advocates have “blasted the Trump administration for going after immigrants who have been here for years and haven’t committed crimes.” The Houston Press similarly pointed out that “ICE only provided a partial list” of the crimes committed by the arrested immigrants and requested a full breakdown.
I also requested a full breakdown of the crimes from ICE’s public affairs office, which I received just an hour later. What they sent me said that 20 of the 82 convictions were for DUIs and 15 were for drug possession (six for marijuana, four for cocaine, three for unnamed controlled substances, one for amphetamines, and one simply labeled as “dangerous drugs”).
This problem isn’t limited to regional papers or local affiliates. Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported on the arrest of 82 undocumented immigrants in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., publishing what amounted to little more than than the ICE release.
In its release, ICE once again highlighted a handful of the arrests. “On March 26, ERO officers arrested a 40-year-old citizen and national of Trinidad and Tobago in Norfolk, Virginia. He has felony drug distribution and firearm possession convictions,” the release said.
The Post included the full list, rearranged a bit: “Those who were arrested came from 26 countries, the agency said, including: A 40-year-old citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, who was arrested in Norfolk and has convictions for felony drug distribution and firearm possessions,” they wrote. The paper also added that “[ICE] described the five-day operation as a routine, ‘targeted immigration enforcement,’” jargon lifted directly from the agency’s release.
ICE said 68 of the 82 people arrested in the D.C. sweep had previous convictions “for crimes like armed robbery, larceny, and drug distribution,” but once again failed to provide necessary context with a breakdown of how many immigrants had committed each of the listed crimes, and when the convictions occurred.
Many people are eager to forget Obama’s reputation as “deporter-in-chief”
Some outlets have put more legwork into these stories. While reporting on ICE raids in the Pacific Northwest, The Seattle Times did something most outlets across the country have failed to do: they called a local immigrant advocacy organization. Tim Warden-Hertz, an attorney at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office, told the Times that over a quarter of the people arrested in the raids didn’t have criminal histories, and that ICE has “a history of overstating the nature of some criminal offenses or using old offenses of people who are living with families and working.”
Approximately half the immigrants detained across the country in the days following Trump’s inauguration either had only committed traffic offenses — mostly DUIs — or had no past criminal convictions, The Washington Post reported last week. Of 675 immigrants detained in early February, 498 had previously been convicted of crimes and 177 had no criminal records. Of those 498 with past convictions, 168 had only been convicted of traffic offenses. In its press releases, however, ICE typically chooses to highlight gang members, drug dealers, and murderers.
ICE issued similar press releases during the Obama years, and our former president was also tough on immigration. In 2014, the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Latino advocacy group, bestowed Obama with the title “deporter-in-chief.” By the time Obama left office, he had deported nearly three million people.
But ICE is already detaining and arresting more immigrants under Trump than it did under Obama. According to the Post, ICE raids are up 32 percent from this time last year, although Obama did prioritize deporting people with past convictions in the last years of his administration. (And it deserves to be mentioned that, during the last few years of his presidency, Obama granted amnesty to tens of thousands of undocumented youth and slowed down the pace on deportation raids.)
The Post reported that more than 20,000 immigrants have been detained under the Trump administration thus far — and the immigrants arrested in raids account for just a small amount of them. But these numbers don’t tell the full story, since many of the immigrants who have been rounded up in Trump’s ICE raids have pending immigration hearings and have yet to be deported.
This context is essential for reporting on immigration. And so is the fact that immigrants commit fewer crimes than American-born citizens and make up six percent of the country’s prison system while comprising seven percent of the total U.S. population. But you wouldn’t know that from ICE’s press releases, or from the dozens of media outlets who parrot them.