Under new Trump administration directives, ICE agents say they have been stepping up arrests of unauthorized immigrants in New Jersey, up 20 percent since last October. Removals by Newark ICE are up 30 percent from the same period last year. In February, a Guatemalan national was released from the Camden County jail only to be arrested five days later by ICE, which also arrested a Brazilian national released from the Burlington County jail. That confirmed by the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Newark. John Tsoukaris spoke with NJTV News Correspondent Brenda Flanagan about how the Trump administration’s orders have changed who gets detained and why and how that’s affecting the immigrant community here.
Flanagan: Now you’re pretty much at the eye of a storm, as we’ve discussed. This new immigration initiative proposed by the Trump administration and acted by the Trump administration, you are directed with carrying this out. How has that changed how you do your job?
Tsoukaris: The executive order that was signed by the president this past January directs DHS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce the immigration laws of the United States against all removal of aliens.
Flanagan: But what does that mean? How are you targeting your operations now? Is there a change?
Tsoukaris: Basically we are still directed to prioritize our enforcement operations on the public safety threats, national security threats, individuals committing crimes, individuals involved in gang affiliation, people committing fraud, immigration fraud as well as people that were already deported from the United States. Those are still our priorities.
Flanagan: Now does that include people who are here whose visas for example expired and they overstayed?
Tsoukaris: Yes any individual that we encounter that’s in the United States in violation of law is subject to arrest and placement in removal proceedings.
Flanagan: So when we hear stories about, for example, a van being stopped and instead of just one person, but everybody being asked for their papers. There are critics who are saying this is tantamount to a sweep. How do you respond to that? How do you go in and do these operations?
Tsoukaris: Our operations are all targeted, meaning that we are looking for a specific individual. So we’re not out in the street just stopping, for example, a van or on the street corner or on a bus. We’re after specific individuals. We’re targeting them. If we encounter other individuals that are here illegally as part of that operation, then we will take action against those individuals as well.
Flanagan: But you wouldn’t know that unless you ask for everyone’s papers right?
Tsoukaris: Well when we do an operation, for example if we go into a house for a target that we’re seeking, for officer safety reasons we will check everybody in that house in terms of their background so we know who we’re dealing with in that environment.
Flanagan: Then you can see why people might call it a sweep. There have been comments along the lines of Analilia Mejia, who is the executive director of Working Families says, “Having an undocumented population living in fear will have an impact on all our public safety and the economy’s bottom line…” because people are afraid. They’re afraid to go to their jobs, they’re afraid to go and pick up their kids at school or go to the doctor. How do you respond to something like that?
Tsoukaris: Like I mentioned earlier, all our operations are targeted. We’re not out there just looking for anybody that’s here illegally. People should not be afraid. They should not listen to sometimes these reports that are out there from the media about ICE checking everybody’s identification at a bus station or at hospital or things of that sort. All our operations are targeted, but if you’re in the United States in violation of law, ICE is required to execute the laws of the United States.
Flanagan: What about the comment or the request actually from the Supreme Court Chief Justice of New Jersey Stuart Rabner. He asked ICE not to pursue any enforcement in the courthouse, in the courthouse environments. He indicated that when these kinds of arrest take place in the courthouse, it makes people afraid that they’re going to be arrested if they show up to testify, if they’re even checking in, for example, with a probation officer or an ICE official. Is this something that you have taken into consideration? Would you add courthouses to that list of places like hospitals that you tend not to go?
Tsoukaris: I mean the court arrests are done only on specific cases, after we have exhausted all other avenues and any arrest that we’ve made in a courthouse, it’ll be for a higher level crime. It’ll be in the non-public area of the courtroom, but that is the last resort type action that we’re not able to locate that individual anywhere else.
Flanagan: One other question. We are the Garden State. I remember picking potatoes when I was a kid up in northern Maine and we had a lot of Canadian families that would come help us bring in the crop. In South Jersey, Central Jersey where they have, for example, blueberry crops, there are a lot of farmers who are expressing concerns about not being able to count on a migrant population to help them bring in the crops. Do you have any plans, how do you address the concerns of these farmers who say that they have a lot of Mexican worker who don’t want to show up to work?
Tsoukaris: All I could say is that we as an executive branch agency have to execute the laws of the United States.
Tsoukaris: We use our discretion on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian concerns, but it’s only case specific. It’s not on a big category of individuals. It will be case specific on discretion.
Flanagan: So you would reach out and talk to the each individual farmers and decide case by case?
Tsoukaris: Well if we encounter a person in the United States in violation of law, then we’ll take action as required on a case-by-case basis.
Flanagan: Tough job you’ve got.
Tsoukaris: Yes it is.
Flanagan: Thank you so much for stopping by.
Tsoukaris: Thank you.