US immigration arrests increased nearly 40 per cent in early 2017 as newly emboldened agents under President Donald Trump detained more than 40,000 people suspected of being in the country illegally, with a renewed focus on immigrants without criminal convictions.
The numbers released by Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan provide a snapshot of how the new president is carrying through on his campaign promises to make immigration enforcement a top priority.
Overall, 41,300 people were arrested for deportation, a 38 per cent increase from a comparable period last year. Nearly 11,000 had no criminal convictions, more than double the number of immigrants without criminal convictions arrested during a comparable period last year.
Homan said the increase in arrests stems from stepped up immigration enforcement, adding that morale has improved among agents under Trump because they are "allowed to do their job."
"Their job is to enforce the law, and that is exactly what they're doing," he said.
Even so, deportations were down from late January to late April compared with a year ago despite the new president's stepped up immigration enforcement pledge.
The increase in arrests of people without criminal convictions has generated outrage across the US from Trump opponents who believe otherwise law-abiding families are being rounded up.
The report was made public as the Trump administration seeks to promote its accomplishments despite a growing scandal over the firing of the FBI director and the sharing of intelligence with Russian officials.
The president "puts this out to distract from the real affairs of our country", said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "It is unfortunate that he basically is using the pain and destroying our families as a way by which to give red meat to his base."
As many as 41,300 immigrants were arrested on suspicion of being in the country illegally between January 22 and April 29, up from 30,000 from January 24 to April 30 last year.
A whopping 30,500 of those arrested had criminal convictions, compared to 25,800 for the earlier period.
As many as 10,800 did not have criminal convictions, compared to 4,200 in the previous period.
Immigration enforcement operations have generated headlines nationwide since Trump signed an executive order on immigration on January 25. Many of them targeted violent offenders with felony records on crimes ranging from assault to murder.
But other immigrants have also been caught up in enforcement efforts, including people who received leniency under the Obama administration.
Silvia Avelar-Flores, a 31-year-old mother of three from Utah, was picked up by immigration agents enforcing an old deportation order last month while she was shopping with her 8-year-old daughter in a Salt Lake City suburb.
She was released and given three months to plan her return to Mexico, a country she left as a young girl. She plans to take her youngest daughter, aged 2, with her and leave her 10-year-old-son and 8-year-old daughter with her husband, who has permanent US residency.
"I don't think it's fair," Alves-Flores said in an interview. "I understand that they want to fix everything, you know, but they are going after the wrong people. Trump said he was just going for the criminals, and that's not happening."
Other examples highlighted by advocates include an Indian taxi driver in Southern California recently arrested during a routine check in with immigration authorities and a Mexican man facing deportation after nearly two decades in the US. Jose Luis Sanchez-Ronquillo, who was living in Michigan, is being held in a Louisiana detention facility while lawyers try to block his deportation.
Immigration arrests doubled in the Miami and Dallas metro areas. They rose 5 per cent in and around Los Angeles and dropped slightly in the San Francisco area.
While arrests of immigrants rose, the number of deportations fell 12 per cent during the period, Homan said.
He attributed the drop to a decline in arrests on the US-Mexico border where immigrants are usually sent home quickly and a lengthy backlog in US immigration courts that issue deportation orders.