Not many notice when the SUVs arrive.
Around 5 a.m., when the immigration agents pull into the parking lot of the Chamblee Heights apartments, 16 miles from downtown Atlanta, only one person is on the lookout.
Cristina Monteros catches sight of the cars with the telltale tinted windows from her small apartment near the front, where she runs a day care, and calls her downstairs neighbor: ICE is here.
The neighbor dials another, who passes it on. It takes less than 15 minutes for everyone in the complex to hear about “la migra,” whereupon they shut their doors and hold their breath. Some show up late to work, and others skip it altogether. The school bus might leave some children behind.
“It’s just us helping each other out,” said Monteros, 35. “There’s fear every day.”
Few places in the United States have simultaneously beckoned unauthorized immigrants and penalized them for coming like metropolitan Atlanta, a boomtown of construction and service jobs where conservative politics and new national policies have turned every waking day into a gamble.
President Donald Trump has declared anyone living in the country illegally a target for arrest and deportation, driving up the number of immigration arrests by more than 40 percent this year. While the Obama administration deported record numbers of unauthorized immigrants, it directed federal agents to focus on arresting serious criminals and recent arrivals. The current administration has erased those guidelines, allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to arrest and deport anyone here illegally.
Freed of constraints, the regional ICE office in Atlanta made nearly 80 percent more arrests in the first half of this year than it did in the same period last year, the largest increase of any field office in the country.
It has had help. Local sheriffs and police have been working with federal agents to identify and detain immigrants, a model of cooperation that the Trump administration is rapidly trying to expand throughout the country.
Every few hours, an unauthorized immigrant is booked into a county jail on charges as serious as assault and as minor as failing to signal a right turn. Then the jail alerts ICE – contrary to what happens in the sanctuary cities repeatedly denounced by Trump, where local authorities refuse to turn immigrants over to the federal agency except in cases involving the gravest crimes.
Atlanta’s immigrants can do little but hide. At strip-mall taquerias and fruit stands, business has lagged. Word of the arrests flows through neighborhood phone trees, and Facebook has become an early-warning system for people desperate for clues about where ICE is operating. All around the metropolitan area, cabs and Uber cars are picking up immigrants who know driving their own cars may get them no further than detention.
As the Trump administration pushes the rest of the country toward tougher immigration enforcement, the Atlanta area offers a glimpse of what could be.
‘You Should Be Scared’
Parked outside their target’s home in Norcross, northeast of Atlanta, in the pre-dawn blackness, the ICE agents watched the neighborhood blink awake, bedroom light by bedroom light.
Inside the small house was a 48-year-old school maintenance supervisor named David Martinez-Samano, who had a pair of felony convictions for domestic violence from 1996 and 1997, plus a rape charge that a plea bargain reduced to a lesser charge. He had served time in prison and had been deported to Mexico twice.
“So he’s a pretty bad guy,” one agent told the team, “and we want to get him off the streets.”
Martinez-Samano’s window glowed at 6:09 a.m. A little later, his wife emerged to walk one of their daughters to the school bus.
Then his Honda Civic shivered to life. As he headed for a turn, the blue lights of the SUVs went blazing down the street.
Within two minutes of being pulled over, Martinez-Samano was handcuffed, patted down and stowed in a back seat. The quick turnaround, ICE officials said, minimized the chances that rubbernecks would post a video on Facebook, where, inevitably, it would be described as a checkpoint or a random traffic stop.
At the agency’s Atlanta building, where detainees in orange jumpsuits filled the holding cells ringing the fluorescent intake room, Martinez-Samano sat stoically in handcuffs.
The agents were doing their jobs, he said in a brief interview. But, he said, he did not think he was worth ICE’s time. Having already gone to prison, he said, “I already paid.”
Just the day before, he and his wife had been at the hospital with their eldest daughter, celebrating the birth of their first grandson.
ICE’s Atlanta office made 7,753 arrests across Georgia and the Carolinas from January through June, the most recent period for which data was available. That was more than any other field office except Dallas’, and an increase of nearly 80 percent over the same period last year.
“If you’re in this country illegally, you should be scared,” said Sean Gallagher, Atlanta field office director. “We’re probably going to come knocking at some point.”
ICE officials say that agents do not randomly arrest people, instead targeting immigrants such as Martinez-Samano. But rumor often outpaces fact. In the suburban neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of immigrants have made precarious camp, dread of a knock from ICE informs every decision.
From Traffic Stop to Ticket Out
Thousands of unauthorized immigrants since 2012 have been arrested and handed over to ICE in Georgia after routine traffic stops revealed that they were driving without a license.
State legislators have empowered local police officers to question suspects about their immigration status, a job normally reserved for federal agents, and three county jails near Atlanta participate in a program, known as 287(g), that allows sheriff’s deputies to identify unauthorized immigrants and hand them over to ICE. The Trump administration has signed dozens of new 287(g) agreements with jails around the country.
“It’s huge for us,” said Gallagher of ICE, calling the program “a force multiplier.”
Gabriela Martinez, 28, a single mother of three who illegally crossed the border from Mexico in 2005, was moving the last of her family’s belongings to the new house she had just rented in Norcross when her Ford Expedition was pulled over for a broken brake light in April.
She knew the risks. The father of her 5-, 7- and 10-year-old daughters, was deported after being pulled over in 2012. Ever since, she had taught the girls to be extra diligent about wearing seat belts. Once Trump took office, she rode with friends and took Ubers as often as possible.
But she said she had no choice but to drive to her daughters’ school, to the doctor or to the houses she cleans. As rapidly as the Atlanta area has grown, public transit is practically absent outside Atlanta itself.
“Every time I pull out of here, I think, ‘Please, God, please, God, don’t let me get stopped,’” she said.
She was held for four days at the Gwinnett County jail – where a sign outside announces “This is a 287(g) facility” – before being transferred to an immigration detention center. The friend who had been watching her children when she was arrested told them their mother was traveling for work, but Martinez called to tell her 10-year-old daughter, Evelyn, the truth.
“If I don’t come home,” she told her, “you’re in charge.”
Evelyn began to wail, sobbing so hard that she dropped the phone. Martinez could only listen.
She was released with an ankle monitor after telling ICE agents about her U.S.-born children. But she still faces possible deportation.
An analysis of one month of Gwinnett County jail records from this summer shows that 184 of the 2,726 people booked and charged at the jail were held for immigration authorities. Almost two-thirds of those detained for ICE had been charged with a traffic infraction such as failing to stay in their lane, speeding or driving without a license. Others were booked on charges including assault, child molestation and drug possession.
Advocates for immigrants have accused officers in 287(g) counties of targeting Hispanic drivers, a claim local police have denied.
“Local law enforcement is just chasing Latinos all over the place for tiny traffic infractions,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.
But to Butch Conway, longtime sheriff of Gwinnett County, there is no reason his deputies should not turn in immigrants caught driving without a license. They are, after all, doubly breaking the law.
“I find it offensive that they just thumb their nose at our laws and operate vehicles they are not licensed to operate,” Conway said in a 2010 interview, “on top of the fact that they are here illegally.” (Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment for this article.)
In nearby Cobb County, Maria Hernandez, a school janitor from Mexico, was arrested while driving home from work one night in May. An officer conducting a random license tag check, a common practice in some police departments, had determined through a state database that the tag had been suspended because the car lacked insurance. After pulling over Hernandez, the officer then discovered she had no driver’s license.
Her boss tried to bail her out of the Cobb County jail, but was told that the money would go to waste: She was headed to immigration detention, where she would spend three days trying to explain that she was a single mother with a sick child. Estefania, her 13-year-old daughter, was being treated for depression after a suicide attempt.
Hernandez was released, given an ankle monitor and told to report back with a plane ticket. (A lawyer has helped delay the deportation.)
Her car, in fact, was insured; the officer had called in the wrong license tag, according to a Cobb County Police Department spokesman, Sgt. Dana Pierce.
Pierce said it made no difference, given Hernandez’s lack of a driver’s license. Generally, “there is no singling out of any race, creed, color, religion or anything else,” the sergeant said.
But by the time the mistake was discovered, it was too late. Hernandez was already being booked into the county jail.