It was approximately 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in early April when the pounding on the front door began. The sun was still coming up over New York City as a man The Intercept will call Michael jumped out of bed to investigate the commotion. Michael opened the door and found three men and one woman wearing tactical vests standing outside. They were accompanied by a man with a camera, already recording.
The law enforcement officials, who Michael assumed were New York City police officers, were asking about a Russian who lived in the apartment. Michael says that his responses to the officers’ queries were nonverbal, mostly shrugs and nods. “The only thing I said was to the camera crew,” he told The Intercept recently. “I told him to get the camera out of my face.”
The officers entered the apartment and went upstairs. Michael could hear them banging around above, presumably in search of the Russian, who was not home at the time. When the officers returned, they asked Michael for his ID. He produced his New York state identification card and one of the officers made a phone call. They then suggested Michael get dressed and grab his passport. Michael put on some clothes and grabbed the document.
“They seemed very excited, very happy,” he recalled.
That’s when the handcuffs came out, Michael said, and the officers explained that they were with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE. Surely this situation could be righted on the spot, Michael thought. He had a meeting with his immigration attorney that very day, about a pending green card application. Michael recalled showing one of the agents a text message from his lawyer. “It doesn’t matter,” he remembers the agent saying.
Michael was led out of the apartment, the cameraman still filming. The ICE team loaded him into their vehicle and drove to another location a few miles away. “They met up with another crew, who had also arrested three guys,” Michael said — Michael’s arrest was one of more than 200 the agency conducted during a six-day period that month. “They headed straight to Manhattan, straight to Federal Plaza,” he recalled.
As they made their way to the federal building, Michael asked the driver a question: “Were you born over here?” Again, he said, the response was: “It doesn’t matter.” The cameraman, who Michael would later learn was shooting a documentary for Netflix, was seated in the front passenger seat. Michael recalls the filmmaker asking the agent something to the effect of: “Do you normally get things like this?” The answer, as Michael remembers it, was, “Oh, yes. We’ll take it. It’s called a collateral. When you go to pick up someone, and you don’t get that person, and you get something else.”
A collateral. Michael was not familiar with the phrase at the time, but he soon would be.
A Dramatic Increase in Coercive Tactics
Michael’s experience is one event out of hundreds included in a new mapping project illuminating the tactics of President Donald Trump’s premiere deportation force.
In one case described in the project, six men in black masks swept through an apartment in the early-morning hours, refusing to identify themselves as they herded the tenants into the living room. In another, seven plainclothes agents surrounded a taxi with guns drawn, taking away the passenger without saying who they were, leaving the man’s belongings, and one confused driver, in their wake. In a third, a couple was walking to the subway when two agents in jeans and sweatshirts tackled the boyfriend to the ground. When the girlfriend, six months pregnant, grabbed one of the unidentified men, she, too, was thrown to the pavement.
There are other, less hands-on examples. There are numerous accounts of ICE targets being told that the voice on the other end of the phone was a municipal police officer looking to meet up to discuss an investigation, only to find, once they were in handcuffs, that that was never the case. There are instances of agents grabbing people before, after, and in court. There are stories of unmarked vehicles lurking outside targets’ homes for hours, and there are accounts of degradation, such as the man who said he was arrested by 10 agents with guns drawn, shackled, and told that he was a “fucking immigrant” and a “piece of shit.”
And then there are stories that hint at the creation of lingering psychological trauma, like the time half a dozen agents and two local cops pounded on a residential door at dawn, refusing to slide a warrant underneath as a terrified 8-year-old boy hid in an attic above them. When the boy’s father eventually relented and opened the door, he was taken away.
Dubbed ICEwatch, the interactive project, released Monday, is the culmination of years of work by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights, two of New York City’s leading legal advocacy organizations.
The project reflects some 665 reported ICE operations, from apartment raids to curbside snatch and grabs, from 2013 to the present. While a handful of examples are logged from as far west as California, the vast majority of the incidents were said to occur in the New York metropolitan area. With more than half of the incidents — a total of 462 events — reported after Trump’s inauguration, the legal organizations behind the project say it shows an increase in several aggressive and coercive tactics under the new administration.
“The infrastructure was inherited by the administration — this police force, the militarization of the border, the data sharing, these tactics,” Genia Blaser, a senior staff attorney with the IDP, told The Intercept. What ICEwatch shows, Blaser argued, is what happens “when the agency itself is unshackled.” Ghita Schwarz, a Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney, added in a statement: “ICEwatch shines a light on ICE’s program of terrorizing communities through raids, ruses, home invasions, courthouse arrests, and other forms of coercion.”
ICE did not respond to a list of questions for this story.
The ICEwatch platform allows users to customize searches based on the type of location where the alleged ICE activity took place, a private residence or a courthouse, for example, and filter results for specific ICE tactics, such as surveillance or use of force. Each search produces a hit on the map, which includes a narrative description of the alleged event. The narratives are, in part, made possible by two unique New York-based initiatives that provide legal services to immigrants who are otherwise not guaranteed legal representation in the immigration court system: the state’s Regional Immigration Assistance Centers and the Immigrant Family Unity Project.
“Both initiatives have provided a mechanism for IDP to collect firsthand accounts of raids from the individuals arrested by ICE (via their attorneys), whose experiences during ICE raids may otherwise not have been shared or reported,” the IDP and CCR said Monday, in a report accompanying the unveiling of ICEwatch. The organization added that it “confirms details of raids reports by speaking with witnesses of raids or those with direct knowledge, the individuals arrested by ICE themselves, or their attorneys.”
ICEwatch comes at a critical time for U.S. immigration enforcement. During his first week in office, Trump signed an executive order that tore up previous guidance on who ICE should prioritize in its operations, making virtually every undocumented immigrant in the country equally fair game for arrest and deportation. Nationally, ICE arrests have surged under Trump, with the greatest growth seen among individuals with no criminal record. An analysis by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office in May found arrests in the region ICE considers part of New York City increased by more than 65 percent in 2017, compared with the same period the previous year, while ICE arrests of people with no criminal conviction shot up 225 percent in the eight months following Trump’s inauguration.
Amid the Trump administration’s crackdown, ICE officials have repeatedly argued that the policies of so-called sanctuary cities, which generally prohibit the immigration enforcement agency from trawling local jails for potential arrestees, forces deportation officers to adopt other measures. In New York, that has translated into a 1,200 percent increase in arrests or attempted arrests at local courthouses, according to the IDP’s tally. Drawing outrage from judges, prosecutors, and lawmakers alike, the courthouse arrests are part of a broader set of intensified actions the agency has taken under Trump that have helped fuel calls for ICE’s abolition.
The designers of ICEwatch are unambiguous on the abolition question, describing it as a tool “in support of advocacy for defunding and abolishing this agency and ending deportation.” Whether demands for the abolition of ICE will result in action remains to be seen. Coming to power on a blatantly anti-immigrant platform, Trump has doubled down in his defense of the agency in recent weeks. Similarly, the nativist core of the administration is unlikely to abandon the vows made to Trump’s far-right base, as well as the rank-and-file immigration enforcement agents who threw their support behind the president on the campaign trail without a fight.
For now, ICE’s daily operations go on. According the IDP and CCR report, the incidents included in ICEwatch “highlight select tactics that have been increasingly prevalent under the Trump administration because they illustrate trends in ICE enforcement, or underscore egregious and inhumane ICE practices and the agency’s disregard for fundamental rights.” Those tactics fall into six categories: warrantless home entries; the use of ruses, or misleading pretexts, to enter a home; use of force; surveillance; courthouse arrests and attempted arrests; and collateral arrests such as Michael’s.
“I knew it wasn’t me they are looking for, because I don’t have any criminal convictions on my record or anything,” Michael explained. “I was just caught up in the crossfire, in the wrong place at the wrong time.” For him, the entire experience marked the beginning of a baffling descent into the American immigrant detention system, a system he says is rife with “human rights abuses.”
“The way they talk to people, the way they address people, the way they maltreat people — it’s inhuman,” he said. “They treat people inhumanly. There’s no difference between the way they treat you and a criminal. They treat you like you’re a criminal. I had never been to jail in my life. I had never gone through an experience like that, so it’s still very traumatic for me.”
A Lucky Guess
ICEwatch has its limitations as a research tool. It is not a comprehensive account of every ICE arrest or attempted arrest in its regional area of focus, but instead a snapshot of those reported. There is limited information on the underlying facts that led to individual ICE encounters and the identities of the noncitizens involved are understandably anonymized. Still, the volume of accounts and their similarities, not to mention the alleged abuses reported, have a clear historical value. The project offers a rare window into the day-to-day operations of a secretive domestic law enforcement agency at a moment of unprecedented criticism — and an eye-opening glimpse at what those operations look like from the perspective of the communities and households most impacted.
In some cases, the accounts are short and to the point. “ICE arrested WD in Kings County Supreme Court,” reads the one-line description of a July 7, 2017, arrest. “5 ICE agents surrounded and handcuffed ACB while he was speaking to his attorney following his court appearance inside the Village of Richfield Springs court house,” reads another account from July 2017. “The ICE supervisor said he was there to ‘make America great again.’”
Other accounts are far more-detailed, such as the case involving a masked ICE team allegedly raiding an apartment, reported in May, in Queens:
Six ICE agents, wearing black masks covering part of their faces, entered SE’s home through the front door before 6am. They entered the bedroom of one of her housemates, who was asleep, and woke her up roughly by shaking her — leaving red marks on her arms. Through the window, she could see more ICE agents in the backyard. The ICE agents, without identifying themselves, then went through the house to round up four of the housemates and directed them to sit in the living room while they did a sweep of the house. The fifth roommate, scared by what was happening, hid in a closet. The ICE agents then asked the housemates to look at a photo of a suspect and answer if they knew him. It was only then that they identified themselves as ICE. None of the housemates had seen the person in the photo before. The agents yelled at them, accused them of lying, and threatened to arrest all four of them if they continued to lie. The agents asked each housemate for their name and identification documents. The agents then took photos of each housemate and scanned their fingerprints. One of the agents then informed SE that she had a removal order and that they would have arrested her, but because she had a young child in the home they would not.
Or this operation, which reportedly took place in Brooklyn on February 8, 2017:
Eight ICE agents began banging on the door to ALA’s apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn at 5am, yelling “Police”. ALA’s girlfriend went to the door — and with the door closed — asked why they were there and said that they couldn’t enter without a warrant. The ICE officers responded that they had a warrant and “either open the door or the door is going to come off the hinges.” ALA’s girlfriend opened the door and the officers barged in so quickly that she didn’t have time to turn on the lights. Officers held up guns to ALA’s girlfriend and also to ALA, who was still in bed. They arrested ALA without identifying themselves and asked ALA’s girlfriend for her name and ID. They refused to answer why they were there and when ALA’s girlfriend asked if they were taking ALA to the local NYPD precinct, they said they were taking him somewhere else. ALA was wearing only his underwear and ALA’s girlfriend tried to give him clothes but the officers were still pointing guns at her so the officers gave ALA the clothes. ALA’s girlfriend thought it was NYPD who arrested ALA until she later got a call from him and learned that it was ICE.
Or this one, from the Brooklyn criminal court, reported in August 2017:
ICE officers arrested NH in the hallway of the Kings County Criminal Court. Inside the court part, the court clerk and officer loudly called NH’s name repeatedly. The court officer told NH’s attorney that ICE was outside the court part waiting to arrest NH. NH’s attorney went to speak with the prosecutor briefly and when he turned around, NH was gone. He had been arrested in the court hallway by plain clothes ICE agents who had been sitting on the benches in the hallway. NH’s attorney then saw that the court clerk had stapled the business card of the ICE officer on NH’s file.
In New York City, ICE’s courthouse arrests have become a serious issue that remains unresolved, receiving considerable media coverage. While ICE’s reported embrace of impersonation of other law enforcement entities as a tactic has received less press attention, that, too, could create problems for the agency.
Examples abound on the ICEwatch map of ICE personnel assuming the identity of local law enforcement to make arrests, including the NYPD. A representative example from Jackson Heights, Queens, in March:
On the morning that DA had criminal court, he received a call from someone who said he was a detective and wanted to meet with DA. DA didn’t feel comfortable meeting him at home and suggested meeting at the local NYPD precinct as he believed it was a police detective calling him. He went to his local NYPD precinct and an officer there told him that there was no one by that detective’s name that worked there. The NYPD officer called the phone number that DA had received the call from and the ICE agent confirmed to the NYPD officer that he was ICE. The NYPD officer told ICE to “leave us out of it” but told ICE where the precinct was located. DA, knowing that ICE was looking for him, waited outside of the precinct for ICE to arrive and then was arrested once they did.
The legal foundation of ICE’s authority to impersonate other law enforcement agencies in order to make noncriminal immigration arrests is uncertain, but according to NYPD Detective Sophia T. Mason, it did not come from the police department. “No individual or agency should ever pose as members of the NYPD, and no one has ever requested — or received — permission from the NYPD to pose as NYPD officers,” Mason, who works for the NYPD’s public affairs office, wrote in an email to The Intercept.
It’s not just police officers that ICE has impersonated. A story from 2014 on the ICEwatch map describes ICE personnel presenting themselves as FBI agents. In a more recent example, an ICE officer reportedly impersonated a staff member from the local district attorney’s office. The description of the case is as follows:
LD received a number of phone calls on his cell phone from a number he didn’t recognize. After of a couple of unanswered calls, LD eventually answered the phone. ICE agents, who told LD that they were from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, told LD that he needed to come into the office to speak about an open case. The ICE agents offered to meet LD in uptown Manhattan, where he was staying at a friend’s apartment. LD, believing that the agents worked for the District Attorney’s office, agreed to meet them at 10am. The ICE agents arranged to meet LD on a nearby street corner and LD agreed although he thought it was a peculiar meeting place. At 10am on the agreed upon date, LD showed up and no one was there. He called the agent that he had been in touch with and the ICE agent said he was running late but on his way. Shortly afterwards, 3 cars pulled up and arrested LD. It was only then that LD learned that the agents were ICE and not part of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
Nabila Taj, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services representing the man arrested in the ICE ruse, said the case was suspicious. It was true, she said, that her client, a 32-year-old man from South Africa who recently lost his student visa because he was unable to pay tuition bills, had a case before the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. At the time of his arrest, Taj said, the case was in the process of being dismissed and since has been. What was particularly strange, Taj explained, was that the ICE officer appeared to have a familiarity with developments in her client’s case — information that should be walled-off from a deportation officer. “It might have been a really lucky guess,” Taj said. “Doubt it.”
Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, told The Intercept that they had no independent information about the immigration enforcement agency’s operation, but added, “Our office does not cooperate with ICE.”
Lost My Whole Life
For Michael, the man who was arrested as a film crew recorded the ordeal, his experience in April upended life as he knew it.
Once processed in Manhattan, he was transferred to a jail, where, he says, it took 10 days before he was even served with paperwork explaining in writing why he was being detained. Michael was given a court date in mid-July, some 16 weeks after he first answered the door in April. “That’s about three months,” he said. “Three good months.” During that time, he said, he lost access to the apartment he was living in, and when new tenants moved in, he lost access to all of the things he had left behind that morning.
“I lost my whole life in that period,” Michael said.
The experience has taken a psychological toll as well, Michael explained. It’s why he would only agree to speak to the press using an assumed name, and why The Intercept is withholding details regarding his current location and the disposition of his case. “These people, they act like they’re gods,” Michael said. “I don’t want them to retaliate against me. I am very, very apprehensive, scared — what if this story comes out, what they going to do?”
“These people, I’m scared of them.” he said. “I don’t know, I’m still traumatized.”