It’s a pleasant afternoon at the Arboretum Office Park. The sun is shining, the lawns and flowerbeds are manicured, and dozens of workers are partaking in free food provided as part of a tenant appreciation event last week.
But just beyond the lake and the mirror-glass buildings, there’s a little-known facility that processes undocumented immigrants. The facility has been at the Arboretum since 2009. The immigrants, some of whom don’t speak English, are held here after being arrested by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement and before being sent to a detention center in Farmville.
“I’ve worked here for seven years, and it’s the first I’ve heard of it,” says Scott Keen, who works in web development at nearby Virginia 529, a state-run organization that helps Virginians plan to pay for college.
Keen’s surprise is understandable: Over the past eight years, the presence of ICE at the Arboretum hasn’t received a great deal of attention from the public or the press. But in light of President Donald Trump’s fiery immigration rhetoric and executive orders calling for increased immigration enforcement, that’s beginning to change. On Sunday, March 26, this Homeland Security office – the department under which ICE and the Border Patrol operate – was the site of a small demonstration by the activist group ICE Out of RVA. The group operates a hotline so people can inform them if a friend or family member has been detained by ICE. That afternoon, roughly two dozen people protested the apprehension of an undocumented immigrant who was arrested outside of his home earlier that day.
Asked why she came, Carolina Velez, who helped organize the protest, said, “It’s my community, it’s my people.” An American citizen who was born in Columbia, she added, “No one should go through this.”
As they stood outside the office building with signs that read “Keep Families Together” and “I.C.E. Out of Chesterfield,” a man exited the office, saying he was headed home for the day. He identified himself as Officer Roy Long Jr.
Long confirmed that his office had picked up two people that day, both of whom were sent to the Farmville Detention Center. Roughly 40 ICE officers work out of the Chesterfield office, he said, and they pick up about 100 people in an average week.
Responding to pointed questions from protestors about breaking up families, Long struck a sympathetic tone: “It’s bad, I agree, but I’ve seen a whole lot worse.”
The man who was picked up by ICE in late March is one of 41,000 undocumented immigrants arrested in the U.S. during Trump’s first 100 days in office, according to new ICE figures released last week. Those figures confirm what had previously been anecdotal conjecture: ICE arrests are up under Trump, dramatically so. While media and public attention has been largely trained on the news bombshells emerging from the White House on a semi-daily basis – most recently revolving around the firing of FBI director James Comey and allegations that Trump shared classified information with the Russians – earlier policy shifts under Trump have flown under the radar. As scandal grips Washington, however, Trump’s push to increase immigration enforcement is proving effective.
According to ICE, arrests of undocumented immigrants rose by nearly 40 percent during the first 100 days of the Trump administration, compared to the same time period last year. On a call with reporters last week, ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, said that arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants had risen to 41,418 between Jan. 22 and the end of April, compared to 30,028 arrests during roughly the same timeframe last year. Among those who were arrested this year, 10,800 were undocumented immigrants not convicted of other crimes, compared to 4,200 noncriminal arrests in 2016 – an increase of 150 percent.
“These statistics reflect President Trump’s commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board,” Homan said in the call.
ICE does not break down its figures for satellite offices, including the Arboretum location. But according to spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell, ICE’s Washington, D.C. field office for Enforcement and Removal Operations – of which the Arboretum is a satellite – made an average of 73 arrests per week between Oct. 1 of last year and April 8 of this year. That figure is up from 53 arrests per week during the same time period the previous year.
In Chesterfield, the uptick in immigration enforcement has particular relevance. Forty-four percent of the Richmond region’s Hispanic population lives in Chesterfield, and the county jail houses the third-highest number of undocumented immigrants in the state who have been detained on criminal charges or convictions.
According to some law enforcement officials, both local and nonlocal, the increase in ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants considered noncriminal under Trump has had a chilling effect on the Latino community’s willingness to interact with police. Chesterfield’s large Hispanic population – numbering more than 25,000 according to the most recent U.S. Census figures – is mostly concentrated in high poverty corridors in eastern Chesterfield, and local police spend considerable time working with the Latino community to build trust and cooperation, says Officer Oscar Ortega, the Chesterfield County Police Department’s Hispanic community liaison. Without that cooperation, policing these communities – and making them safer for their residents and surrounding neighbors – is difficult.
Ortega says reports of crime from Hispanics started to drop in January when Trump took office, though recently they’ve begun to pick up some. Ortega regularly visits churches, schools and community events with the county’s Hispanic population as part of his job, and lately has had to explain to undocumented immigrants that local police aren’t here to deport them.
“The issue we’re having is getting the community to come out, because they’re scared. They’re scared about everything that’s going on,” Ortega says.
While the county doesn’t break down crime statistics by specific demographic groups, some larger metropolitan areas have recorded a drop in reported crime in the Latino community since January. Earlier this year, Houston reported a 40 percent drop in the number of Latinos reporting incidents of rape since Trump took office; Los Angeles saw a 10 percent drop in reports of domestic violence by Latinos, and a 25 percent drop in reports of sexual assault.
Juan Vega, a prosecutor with Chesterfield’s Commonwealth Attorney’s office, says he’s seen firsthand how the fear of deportation can lead victims of crime to keep quiet.
“The chilling effect does concern me,” says Vega, a naturalized American citizen originally from Nicaragua. “From a prosecutor’s point of view, I want to put the bad guys away.”
Vega recently worked a case in which a crime victim was here illegally and declined to testify in court out of fear that he’d be deported.
“He asked me if he was going to be picked up [by ICE and deported] if he came to the courthouse to testify on behalf of the commonwealth,” Vega says. “I really could not give him any assurance that he wouldn’t be. It kind of works against us in that sense.”
Vega says that in most cases where undocumented immigrants are charged, the issue is traffic related. Relatively few cases involve violent crimes. Meanwhile, Vega says criminals often will target members of poor immigrant populations because they’re unlikely to report crime.
“There’s nothing new about criminals preying upon vulnerable people in our society, such as the elderly and the handicapped,” says Vega, who – like some immigrants interviewed for this story – advocates for deporting violent undocumented immigrants after they’ve served their time. “I’ve prosecuted numerous defendants, non-Hispanic defendants who have preyed upon illegal immigrants who live in trailer parks and other places like that. It’s very clear that they target these people because they think they can get away with it.”
Ortega says that police are working to regain trust in the community.
“Right now, everything is about educating the public, letting them know we’re here for the community, and [that] we only enforce state and local laws,” Ortega says. “[Chesterfield police] can’t really enforce any type of immigration. We don’t ask about your legal status as any type of report.”
County police officers are limited by state law when it comes to arresting undocumented immigrants. In order for local officers to get involved with immigration issues, says Maj. Brad Badgerow, head of the operational support bureau for Chesterfield police, a person would have to meet the following criteria: be in the country illegally; have previously been convicted of a felony; and have been deported or otherwise left the United States and returned.
“It’s a pretty narrow course of action that the police would ever get involved in enforcing illegal alien-type offenses,” Badgerow says. “The concern in the community is that now police are going to be doing these raids and all that stuff. That’s so far from the truth.”
If local law enforcement doesn’t enforce immigration laws, how does ICE detain people in Chesterfield? ICE can either issue a detainer to local law enforcement, or arrest immigrants themselves. In the first method, ICE issues a detainer to a locality, asking it to hold an arrestee after jail time has been served.
Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard says he calls ICE every morning to inform them of anyone they’ve picked up. If issued a detainer to hold an immigrant past his or her jail stay, Leonard will hold the individual an additional two hours. Leonard says the jail used to hold immigrants longer, but changed its policy two years ago after the Virginia Attorney General’s office issued an opinion stating that the sheriff’s office was opening itself up to civil liability.
“[If I’ve] deprived you of your freedom, that’s a constitutional violation. It’s also a legal violation that’s called kidnapping,” Leonard says. “That’s why we stopped doing it.”
Under the new administration, the sheriff says he hasn’t received any new directives.
“Nothing has changed,” Leonard says. “What we have seen from them is increased activity from them in the county, as far as ICE picking up people, but that hasn’t touched us.”
Soulmaz Taghavi, partner and immigration lawyer with Henrico-based Novo Taghavi Ltd., says she’s witnessed ICE officers arrest one of her law partner’s clients on Iron Bridge Road after appearing in court, and has heard of similar instances from other clients.
ICE did not confirm or deny the practice of picking up immigrants after they appear in court, stating, “The determinations about where and how [Enforcement and Removal Operations] personnel carry out arrests are made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all aspects of the situation, including the prospective target’s criminal history; safety considerations; the viability of the leads on the individual’s whereabouts; and any sensitivities involving the prospective arrest location.”
One of Taghavi’s clients has personal experience with both methods of capture by ICE. The client, a Mexican national who spoke on the condition of anonymity, served time at Farmville four years ago after local law enforcement caught him driving without a license for the second time. After serving his sentence at Richmond’s jail, he was picked up by ICE and taken to the Arboretum. The man was processed there and transferred to Farmville.
“It was a very tough experience for me,” he says of Farmville, through an interpreter. “I was the one bringing in all the money for [my] family. It was really tough for me to not know how they were living, how they were coping with me being gone.”
The Mexican national was able to make it out on bond, but he still has a case pending in the immigration courts. His cousin was not so lucky.
Charged twice for driving without a license – first in New Kent County, then in Chesterfield – the cousin appeared in court for the second offense (he didn’t appear for the first). As he headed home from court, he was pulled over on Iron Bridge Road and arrested. After being processed at the ICE office at the Arboretum, he was taken to Farmville, where he spent the next four months before being sent back to Guatemala, leaving behind a girlfriend and newborn child.
“One does a lot to get to this country,” says Taghavi’s client, who came here from Mexico 14 years ago seeking a better life for his family. “At that time, I was a lot younger. I walked through the desert day and night for a few days before I arrived [at] my destination. I was very scared about what might happen, but, at the same time, my main goal was to get to the United States.”
In the past year, with the heated immigration rhetoric in the presidential campaign and subsequent increased enforcement by ICE under Trump, the fear of the unknown – of getting picked up and deported – has only been heightened for Taghavi’s client and others like him.
“When we leave our house, we don’t know if we’re ever coming back home,” he says.
While immigration enforcement has increased since January, the number of deportations has actually fallen. Though arrests by ICE are up, Homan, the agency’s acting director, says deportations are down 12 percent compared to the same time period under Obama. This is partly because the number of people caught crossing the U.S. border with Mexico is significantly lower since the beginning of the year. In that sense, Trump’s uptick in immigration enforcement appears to be effective: fewer people are crossing the border illegally.
Those who support tougher immigration policy see this as a victory.
County resident Ken Davis is a member of the tea party and the Chesterfield County Republican Committee and an active participant in grassroots Republican politics statewide. He’s supportive of the recent immigration measures undertaken by the Trump administration – but he also advocates for reforming the immigration process to make it easier for people to come to the U.S. legally. He says you can’t have one without the other, especially considering the enormity of the problem – there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
“I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the United States to be accepting everybody and their brother, just because they can cross the border,” Davis says. “There’s no such thing as an illegal immigrant here that hasn’t broken the law, because they did so by coming here illegally. … We need to enforce existing laws, and we need to make it easier for people to come here legally.”
The increase in ICE arrests, however, is creating other challenges: Namely, what does the government do with a growing number of detainees? When ICE arrests people in the country’s interior, versus at the border with Mexico, their cases are more complicated and are often slowed down by the immigration court system, which reportedly has a backlog of more than half a million cases.
Since the increase in arrests, Taghavi says some of her clients are now being moved frequently from one detention center to another over state lines – a sign that ICE may be having trouble housing the influx of detainees. ICE did not respond to inquiries about overcrowding or moving immigrants to different facilities.
“One arm doesn’t know what the other arm is doing,” Taghavi says. “There’s just way, way too many people who are being detained.”
The uptick in ICE enforcement will likely lean on the private sector to help detain and monitor immigrants who would otherwise be held in detention facilities while awaiting deportation proceedings, which can take years.
Just around the corner from the ICE facility at the Arboretum, there’s an office for Geo Group in the Fountain Park complex on Midlothian Turnpike.
Geo Group is one of the two main private prison companies that has contracts with ICE. A Geo Group spokeswoman declined to comment on its practices, but according to ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell, Geo Group administers its Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, an alternative to detention.
Following an arrest, Cutrell says custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, and alternatives to detention include “various forms of supervision,” such as telephonic reporting or GPS monitoring.
Every weekday, immigrants stop at the Fountain Park office to check in and receive services. One immigrant who regularly visits the office is Edgar Yovani Palacios Escalante, a Guatemalan national who came to America with his daughter half a year ago.
“They grabbed me at the border,” says Palacios Escalante through an interpreter as he stands outside of the Geo Group office in March. “I was in detention for five days. At the end, they gave me freedom, but they put an ankle bracelet on me.”
Lifting up his pant leg to display the monitor, he says he has to make sure he changes the battery when it’s running low. If he doesn’t, he says ICE could put out an order for his capture.
“It’s uncomfortable, and it vibrates sometimes,” he says.
Palacios Escalante, 25, says he and his family fled Guatemala to escape poverty, and that he does carpentry and construction work in the Richmond area.
“They should give asylum to people, because people need it,” Palacios Escalante says. “[People] cross the border to find something better for their families.”
Since the ICE Out of RVA demonstration at the ICE office at the Arboretum, the man who was arrested has been released on bail. His family hired a lawyer, and he is going through immigration proceedings.
Though arrests are up, Velez, the woman who helped organize the March protest, says the group’s hotline hasn’t seen a spike in calls. She’s seen an increase in immigrants checking in at the Geo Group office, however, as well as an increase in the use of ankle monitors.
“We’ve heard that the reason that is happening is that the immigration facilities are full,” Velez says. “We don’t really understand what the pattern is.”
A central issue in Trump’s campaign, managing the influx of undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S., remains a political pressure cooker due to the complex mixture of economic, humanitarian and security concerns. Trump has floated various ideas: a physical border wall; withdrawing federal funds from “sanctuary cities” that limit cooperation with national immigration enforcement efforts; and adopting a more “merit-based” immigration system.
So far, though, the only initiative to gain traction under Trump has been his increased enforcement of existing immigration laws. Whether the current level of ICE activity is sustainable and where it leads is unclear. But, Taghavi speculates, “As long as this administration is in place, I think they’re going to continue to have these ICE raids.” ¦