LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
We begin today's program covering reports of an escalation in immigration raids in some seven states - California, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, New York and Texas. Immigrant rights groups say the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, is going after an even greater number of immigrants believed to be in the United States illegally. ICE denies it's doing anything different from what it usually does.
NPR correspondent John Burnett is in Austin, Texas, one of the cities where these roundups have reportedly been occurring. And he joins us now to help answer the question of exactly what's going on. John, what can you tell us?
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Lakshmi. Well, ICE released a statement from Washington today and said this is just business as usual, that they regularly conduct targeted enforcement operations with extra personnel and this is just daily routine. But I don't really think locals would agree with that statement here in Austin, that this is business as usual. I mean, really they think something extraordinary is happening.
Under Obama, ICE agents mainly picked up what they called criminal aliens from jails around the country. But with this operation, you're seeing these immigration agents fanning out into streets and neighborhoods. And that's what left people so alarmed. I spoke with the Mexican consul here in Austin, Carlos Gonzalez, earlier today. The numbers he gave me was he says 49 Mexican nationals were picked up Thursday, Friday and today. He said that's a significant increase over the usual apprehensions of undocumenteds here in Austin. And, of course, that doesn't even include Central Americans or other nationalities that would've been picked up.
I want to quickly go to some tape here from an eyewitness I interviewed this morning, a Margaret Saldana who runs a child care business in North Austin. She saw one of the ICE arrests from her living room window early Thursday morning.
MARGARET SALDANA: I see a truck. And then police ICE on the vest of the guy. And he's putting handcuffs on the driver. And I was like - kind of, like, shocked. And then on the other side, there was another agent handcuffing the passenger.
SINGH: John, if ICE agents were presumably looking for the driver, why would they arrest and cuff the passenger as well?
BURNETT: Well, it's an interesting point because what the Mexican consul told me is that there's a significant number of people being arrested who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So let's say ICE has targeted the driver. You know, they have his registered vehicle. And then this passenger happens to be riding in shotgun seat and he's undocumented. And so they arrest him, too, even though he's not been charged with a crime, and he's going to be deported along with the driver.
SINGH: Who are these people the ICE agents are rounding up? We have a quote from an ICE official in California who says that they're felons.
BURNETT: Right. And the consul here in Austin said - they've been interviewing the Mexican nationals at the ICE detention center in downtown Austin, and here's what he said they've learned about them.
CARLOS GONZALEZ: In our interviews, we have documented those cases. We've seen DWIs. We've seen people sought because of domestic violence. It's a wide range of reasons why ICE was targeting these specific individuals.
BURNETT: I mean, you know, drunk driving, immigration offenses, these are obviously lower-level crimes. They're not rapists and murderers, though, that - ICE may be picking those felons up in other cities. But I think what's important here is it appears that under President Trump's executive order ICE is defining criminal alien much more broadly for lower-level offenses than Obama's ICE did. They're not just picking up immigrants convicted of serious crimes anymore as before.
SINGH: Immigrant advocates have been saying these nationwide roundups are sweeps of anyone who's here in the U.S. without papers. Do you find that to be true?
BURNETT: Well, ICE is emphatic that they have not set up traffic checkpoints, they're not just doing these generalized sweeps in parking lots where immigrants go to find work. And in fact, they say this is false and it's irresponsible that people have been reporting this. And I tried to check this out this morning at a popular Mexican grocery where they said that ICE had done a raid in the parking lot - all rumors. And the Mexican consul seconded this, so it sounds like these are targeted operations.
SINGH: I'm curious, what's the reaction been there?
BURNETT: Well, it's been, you know, tremendous anxiety, as you might imagine, among the undocumented immigrant population of which there's a bunch in Austin. And then there have been lots of immigrant sympathizers who, for instance, crowded an intersection in north Austin last night, blocked traffic and - but this is important.
Austin is a so-called sanctuary city. This is where we have a sheriff who has said our jail is not going to cooperate with ICE if they routinely ask us to hold undocumented immigrants so they can come pick them up. And so this has infuriated the governor. We know that President Trump has also said we're going to target sanctuary cities. So people in Austin think that this city has been singled out because it's a sanctuary city.
SINGH: NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.
BURNETT: Been a pleasure, Lakshmi.
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