The rip of Velcro pierces the early-morning silence as the immigration officers adjust their body armor, readying for their next arrest. Gravel crunching underfoot, they step out of the darkness and into the dim glow of an Austell pizzeria so they can see each other more clearly. The time is 5 a.m.
One of the officers hands out a photo of their target, Jose Serrano, a Mexican national who has been repeatedly sentenced to prison for felony convictions, including vehicular homicide and felony gun possession. He has already been deported three times.
The officers study a map showing the route Serrano will likely drive to work that morning. They have watched his home for days. So they know his habits, how many vehicles he typically has in his driveway and that he has young children living with him. That last bit of information will cause them to take extra precautions.
They are about to provide an intimate look at how they are doing their jobs amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Along the way they will share their own families’ experiences immigrating to America. And they will give their opinions about President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration enforcement.
Bill McCafferty, an assistant field office director for ICE’s Atlanta area of operations, grows anxious as more cars start crawling down the surrounding roads under a crescent moon. A 21-year veteran of federal immigration enforcement, he doesn’t want the word to get out that he is in the neighborhood. That could bring his agency’s carefully planned operation to a quick end.
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“Hey guys,” the former cop tells the group, “we are getting some traffic on here, let’s go ahead and head out.”
‘Put yourself in their place’
McCafferty pulls his unmarked SUV into a quiet subdivision, turning off his headlights. He leaves his engine running so the air conditioning will keep him cool in his bulletproof vest. McCafferty pulls a checkered scarf from around his neck and drapes it over his dashboard’s bright display. Each time a car drives by, he slides lower in his seat. One vehicle slows as it passes and then backs into a nearby driveway. McCafferty sighs.
“What happens sometimes is people see us parked and they will call a relative,” McCafferty says. “He’s trying to figure out who we are. Hopefully he will call the local police and they will put his mind at ease.”
McCafferty’s agency has been busy since Trump began seeking to deliver on his central campaign promise of getting tough on illegal immigration. In February, the government issued guidelines significantly expanding its targets for deportation.
Between Trump’s inauguration and April 29, ICE made 4,246 arrests in its Atlanta area of operations, which includes Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. That’s a 75 percent jump from the same time frame last year, when Barack Obama was in the White House and there were 2,429 apprehensions. Nationwide, more than one-quarter of ICE’s arrests this year have involved people with no criminal convictions, up from 14 percent from the same period last year. Among those apprehensions this year are what ICE calls "collateral arrests," or what can occur when the officers encounter other unauthorized immigrants while searching for people such as Serrano.
Civil rights advocates call ICE’s tactics counterproductive and cruel, accusing the agency of splitting up families and damaging carefully cultivated relationships between immigrant communities and local police. Since Trump took office, unauthorized immigrants have gone deeper into the shadows in the Atlanta area, staying off the roads and keeping their kids out of school.
At the same time, the president’s decision to give ICE more latitude has been empowering for McCafferty and his colleagues. The Obama administration placed some restraints on them. Last month, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said the Trump administration had “taken the handcuffs off law enforcement.”
“It’s difficult to walk away from someone who you know is in the country illegally,” McCafferty says. “One of the things that kind of gets missed — and it rarely gets reported — is there is a significant section of the immigrant population that may have not committed a crime here but have committed a crime elsewhere. And we are not going to know that until we get them back in our office and run the checks we need to run. And that is just something we couldn’t do before.”
Yet, McCafferty is not insensitive to their plight. After all, he is an immigrant himself, having been born in Mexico to parents of Mexican and Irish descent. He traveled to the U.S. at the age of 13 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. That experience informs his work today.
“My father wanted to follow immigration law,” he says. “So he wouldn’t let us come over until I naturalized and my mom adjusted her status. For a Mexican to do that — it takes forever.”
McCafferty adds that he is not naïve about why people come here without authorization, noting that it can take many years to come to the U.S. through legal channels.
“The process can be very long,” he says, “so you can understand why they want to do it.”
While McCafferty is sympathetic, he sees his work as necessary to protect the public. He supervises his office’s fugitive operations team, which apprehends people who pose public safety threats, such as violent gang members. A family man, McCafferty is also sensitive when children are involved. While secretly watching Serrano’s morning routines, ICE officers learned he had young children in his home. So they planned to arrest him away from his house.
“It’s to keep them safe,” McCafferty says. “You kind of tend to put yourself in their place. Nobody wants to see their dad or their mom arrested, so we want to try to minimize that impact as much as we can.”
Moments later, McCafferty gets a call on his radio. Serrano is pulling out of his driveway. McCafferty switches on his headlights and hits the accelerator.
“He’s in his truck right now.”
‘I did it for my family’
The arrest happens quickly and without a struggle. After Serrano pulls out of the driveway of his suburban home, an ICE officer lines up behind the commercial painter and flips on his flashing blue lights.
Balding and bespectacled, Serrano, 53, is dressed for his job, wearing all white, his outfit encrusted with paint. Serrano pulls his pickup truck into a turn lane, where he is frisked, handcuffed and led to a waiting ICE vehicle. He appears calm but later admits he is nervous.
The officers bring him to their downtown Atlanta office and escort him into a large room with light green walls, one of them covered with a large U.S. flag. Several immigrants glumly stare from small cells lining the room.
The officers strip Serrano of his belt, a safety precaution. They take his baseball cap. They collect his cash. And they place all of it in a plastic bag for safekeeping. Speaking Spanish, an officer returns Serrano’s cellphone to him so he can make some quick calls. Still handcuffed, Serrano cradles the phone in both hands as he tells his boss he won’t be coming into work that day. Then he calls his wife to let her know where he is and where ICE has left his truck.
Serrano isn’t surprised by his arrest. He expected it after recently applying for a visa reserved for crime victims. He says he served as a witness in the prosecution of a man who tried to rob him in Hapeville three years ago. Serrano hopes the document — called a “U Visa” — will allow him to stay in the U.S. legally with his family. Taking a phone call from a reporter, Serrano’s immigration attorney, Christopher Taylor, says he thinks his client’s criminal convictions make it unlikely he could receive such a visa. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that considers U Visa petitions, declines to comment, citing federal privacy laws.
ICE plans to ask the local U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute Serrano on a charge of illegally re-entering the country after being deported, a felony. Serrano already has one conviction for that crime in 2003, which brought him a prison sentence of nearly six years. Cracking down on such re-entries is a top priority, according to ICE, because it sends a powerful signal to others. If Serrano is convicted of an illegal re-entry charge, he will serve any prison sentences in the U.S. before being deported.
ICE’s statistics show the agency is on pace to carry out 231,080 deportations in the fiscal year ending in September. But that doesn’t come near the total reached during the height of the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts in fiscal year 2012, when 409,848 people were deported. Obama got the derisive nickname “deporter in chief” for expelling more people than any other president in history. Falling apprehensions along parts of the southwest border and a massive backlog in the nation’s immigration courts are surely factors in how many deportations are being carried out this year.
Serrano has no complaints about ICE, saying the officers are doing their jobs, just as Mexican immigration authorities do. Trump is a different matter.
“Oh, man, he is screwing us bad,” he says of the president. “It’s too bad — separating and breaking up families.”
Originally from Cabo San Lucas, Serrano says he has been in the U.S. on and off for nearly 40 years. He first sneaked across the southwest border with the help of a smuggler, seeking a better living. He picked oranges, peppers and tomatoes in California before following his brothers to Georgia to work in the construction industry. He eventually married a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, and they had eight children, all of them born in America. The oldest is 23. The youngest is just 2.
After one of Serrano’s deportations, he says, the family moved to Mexico for five years. But his kids had trouble learning the language and culture and fitting in. So they moved back. Serrano worries about their well-being because his wife recently suffered a stroke and has received a defibrillator for her heart.
“I did it for my family,” he says about repeatedly returning to the U.S. after being deported. “If I worried about myself, honestly, I would be in my house in Mexico. I came back because of my family.”
If if he is deported again, Serrano says he won’t return and will instead seek to make a living in Mexico, where his mother remains.
“I’ll stay there. I won’t come back,” he says. “I don’t’ know what is going to happen to my wife.”
An officer leads him to a cell. Serrano steps inside and sits down, crossing his legs and impassively staring straight ahead.
A grieving family
Serrano’s wife, Karen, and two of his daughters gather outside the ICE building, worrying about his fate. Weeping, Karen is too overcome with emotion to speak. Her daughters speak for her.
Crystal Serrano, 17, says they have not yet told her younger siblings what has happened. Her mother, she says, works as a parent facilitator at a local school but does not earn enough to cover their rent and other bills. They don’t know how they will manage without her father.
“I actually don’t know anything that is going on because no one will tell us anything,” she says. “He just called and said they took him.”
(Her father is later transferred to the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, located about 180 miles south of Atlanta. Crystal’s 16-year-old sister, Denisse, says they spoke with him recently by phone and he sounded calm. Denisse and her mother are planning to visit him soon. ICE has returned the keys to his pickup truck to them.)
Taylor, Serrano’s immigration attorney, is familiar with such desperate situations. He says there was a lot of fear among his clients after Trump took office and started issuing his executive orders.
“It has kind of sunk into people’s psyche that this is the risk and the reality they are facing,” he says. “I don’t think there is as much panic. It’s more like, ‘OK, this is just our new reality.’ The toll — we probably won’t know it for years because I think the burden is going to be on the children of these immigrant families, both psychologically and in other ways.”
ICE’s improving morale
Joe Sifuentez strips off his body armor and stows his handgun. The day went as scripted. Serrano was apprehended quickly and nobody was injured. All the planning that went into his arrest, Sifuentez says, demonstrates that ICE is acting deliberately and not indiscriminately arresting people or racially profiling them.
“What you witnessed today is actually normal as far as how we conduct our enforcement operations,” says Sifuentez, the deputy field office director for ICE’s Atlanta area of operations and a veteran with more than two decades of experience in federal immigration enforcement.
Like McCafferty, Sifuentez can see the work he does through the perspective of those who legally come here. A Texas native, Sifuentez says his Mexican-born wife immigrated to the U.S. with legal permission. Her parents did the same.
“What she has shared with me and her family has shared with me,” he says, “is that it is very disappointing to them — knowing that they did it the right way — to see others not doing it the right way.”
What has changed since Trump took office, Sifuentez says, is that ICE officers “no longer need to play ‘look the other way’ when we come across an undocumented alien … whereas before we had to turn a blind eye in some cases.”
The changes under Trump, he adds, are improving morale among his fellow officers “exponentially.”
“We get nothing but positive feedback from them,” he says of his colleagues. “They feel like they are finally able to do their jobs without all the restraints.”