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Ohio Immigration Arrests Boom Under Trump, Though Below Obama Highs

Immigration arrest at a garden center in Ohio.
John Minchillo
Associated Press

The Trump administration has reversed a years-long decline in immigration arrests in Ohio and Michigan, sweeping up people previously considered lower priority for deportation, according to government figures and interviews with attorneys.

Recent raids by immigration agents at Corso’s garden center in Sandusky and Fresh Mark in Salem drew national attention to enforcement in the Midwest. But the government was taking more suspected undocumented immigrants into custody before the raids, too.

In the last fiscal year, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017, ICE reported 52 percent more arrests in Ohio and Michigan than in the prior period.

“The folks that I’m seeing picked up now are really—you know, anyone,” Cleveland immigration attorney Kathryn Russell said. “Anyone that has overstayed a visa, anyone who has applied for an application with immigration that has been denied, those folks are now getting letters much more quickly to send them into removal proceedings.”

ICE reported about 3,400 arrests in the region last year, but the agency arrested more people in Ohio and Michigan under President Obama in 2013 and 2014. Those numbers fell significantly in the final two years of Obama’s term.

Now the trend is moving in the other direction.

Trump Ends Obama-Era Enforcement Program

New deportation cases in Ohio’s immigration court reached a peak not in Trump’s first year, but at the tail end of the Bush administration and early Obama years.

The government initiated more than 4,500 deportation cases in Ohio in the 2009 fiscal year, compared with almost 3,300 last fiscal year, according to figures compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Obama stepped up enforcement as his administration pushed for immigration reform in Congress, according to Kevin R. Johnson, the dean of the law school at University of California, Davis.

“I think part of that political calculation was to try to convince Republicans that enforcement really was going to happen under President Obama,” Johnson said. “In the end, (he) got more enforcement, more removals, but no immigration reform.”

When the reform effort died in the U.S. House, Johnson said, the Obama administration adopted a narrower approach. The Department of Homeland Security began to focus on deporting immigrants convicted of serious crimes, as part of the 2014 Priority Enforcement Program.

In Ohio and Michigan, the number of ICE arrests plummeted 51 percent from the 2014 to the 2016 fiscal years, according to statistics provided by the agency.

President Trump has reversed the government’s course. Days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order ending the Obama-era initiative, expanding the government’s priorities for deportation

ICE arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions more than doubled in Ohio and Michigan last fiscal year, from 487 to about 1,100.

Kathleen Kersh, an Ohio immigration attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said the government is now arresting more people who “don’t have criminal records, have been here a long time, may have significant ties to the community, children who are U.S. citizens.”

The number of immigration arrests of people with past convictions grew, too, increasing about 32 percent between the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. 

“I am seeing quite a few more permanent residents, people who have green cards, with old criminal convictions getting picked up on those old convictions and detained by ICE,” attorney Elizabeth Ford said. “I don’t think that was so common in previous years as it is now.”

Changes In Immigration Court

The Trump administration has also moved to curtail a practice called administrative closure. The procedure allowed courts to put deportation proceedings on hold, letting defendants remain in the U.S.

Administrative closure reached a high in Ohio in the 2016 fiscal year, according to TRAC statistics. Last year, the number of closures plummeted, though it remained higher than average.

In May of this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision limiting such closures by immigration judges. Now attorneys say they believe the government may try to resume cases that had been administratively closed. 

“I have a file cabinet, multiple file cabinets full of cases that have been administratively closed,” attorney Kathryn Russell said. “I anticipate that we will soon be receiving motions from the government to have those cases re-calendared.”

ICE officials declined an interview request for this story, but said that the agency was reviewing administrative closures on a case-by-case basis.

Kim Alabasi, a Cleveland immigration attorney, said she hadn’t personally seen closed cases put back on the calendar in Ohio’s court. But she said one administratively closed case of hers was restarted in Detroit.

“This was somebody who had been here for many years and was married to a U.S. citizen, and no criminal history,” Alabasi said.

A larger portion of immigration court cases ended in deportation orders last fiscal year, too. Ohio judges ordered immigrants to leave the country in 57 percent of completed cases last year—up from a two-decade low of 36 percent in 2016, according to TRAC figures.

The hard number of deportation orders climbed last year, too, but remains below heights reached in 2009. Ohio’s immigration court faces more than 9,000 pending cases this year, according to TRAC figures, with hearing dates scheduled out to 2021.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the courts, is in the process of hiring 100 more judges around the country, according to a spokeswoman. The office hasn’t announced how many new hires would complement the three judges in Cleveland’s immigration court.