ATLANTA - With the Trump administration's controversial immigration policies making headlines around the world, Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant takes you inside US Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations in Metro Atlanta.
After months of negotiating, Diamant got exclusive access to the boots on the ground -- the federal officers charged with tracking down and arresting people living illegally in our area.
Our goal was to get past politics and advocacy, from one side or another, to understand how the operations work and how they don't.
This month, Channel 2 Action News was alongside local ICE officers as they targeted convicted criminals.
A pre-dawn briefing on the morning's targets for the ICE Fugitive Operations Team identified three targets in Hall and Gwinnett Counties.
"Subject's Hispanic male, got multiple convictions for family violence, battery, cruelty to children, sexual battery," Fugitive Operations supervisor Dan Jones told officers during the briefing.
Team members told Diamant it took weeks of research and reconnaissance to finalize their target list for this day. All of the targets are convicted felons, who have previously been deported and are considered public safety threats.
"I think it's safe to say that there's a lot of misconceptions out in the community right now," Atlanta Deputy Field Office director, Joe Sifuentez, told Diamant.
"Some of the narrative is that ICE officers indiscriminately target foreign nationals, and that's just not true," explained Atlanta Field Office director Sean Gallagher.
From Jan. 20 of this year, when President Trump took office, through the end of April, officers from ICE’s Atlanta Field Office, which covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, arrested 4,246 foreign nationals from all over the world living in the country illegally. That's compared to just 2,429 arrests over the same period last year --a nearly 75 percent spike. According to ICE, nearly two-thirds of those they arrested were convicted criminals.
"It's a very specific and targeted enforcement effort against a specific individual," Gallagher said. "When we take those public safety threats off the street, it gives me some comfort."
Despite the intelligence work that went into the operation we witnessed, officers' efforts to locate their first two targets of the day were a bust. Officers located their third target in Hall County -- a Mexican national, who was convicted of felony heroin trafficking in 2011, before being deported.
"That's where our enforcement activities have really not changed much," Sifuentez said of the team arresting the convicted felon.
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Channel 2’s cameras did see one big thing that has changed since Trump signed an executive order rolling-back certain late Obama-era immigration enforcement policies: After officers arrested their target, they then questioned and ultimately arrested the two illegally-present Mexican nationals they found with him. A woman with two prior deportations, and another man picked up for the first time, who admitted to ICE officers he was in the country illegally.
The woman officers arrested had her final removal order reinstated and is already back in Mexico. The second man is currently in removal proceedings before the courts. He was released from custody on bond.
While the president's policy shift has pushed regional and national arrest numbers up this year, arrests are still under where they were in 2013, before Obama’s policies took effect.
"Right now, we have a very easy task, just enforce the law as it's written," Gallagher said.
Gallagher told Diamant his officers are sympathetic toward family members impacted by those secondary arrests, but there are limits.
“These folks, who are illegally in this country, understand that they are illegally in this country," Gallagher said.
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