“Who is it?” the 25-year-old Wichita woman asked while answering her door on Jan. 30.
“It’s the police,” she heard.
The woman knew it was probably immigration officers, who had surrounded her house in unmarked vehicles near Lincoln and Market. Her husband, 42, had been living and working in Wichita full time for about six years after overstaying a visa in 2011.
She asked the immigration officers for a search warrant, but they didn’t produce one, she said. “If you know your rights, then you know it’s against the law to harbor an illegal alien,” one of the officers told her.
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“My husband is not home,” she said.
She asked whether she could give the officers a number at which to reach him, and eventually they left. But later that day, her husband’s car was pulled over not far from the house, and he was detained.
A few weeks later, unable to afford a lawyer or the $5,000 bail, he signed a paper that said he would leave voluntarily and was released just over the Mexican border.
What it means
This was one of the first immigration arrests in Wichita after Donald Trump’s election, and it sent a wave of fear throughout Wichita’s immigrant community, with hundreds sharing on Facebook rumors and photos of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stopping at QuikTrips and making arrests.
“I knew this was coming,” the woman, crying, told The Eagle the day after her husband had been arrested. “I knew this was going to happen, I just never knew within a week Trump would do so much damage and turn America upside-down.”
But now, several months later, as the Trump administration’s approach to immigration has become more clear, the results have been both harsher than immigration advocates had hoped for and more lenient than immigration opponents had wanted.
Although the majority of immigration arrests in the United States continue to be of criminals, an increasing percentage are noncriminals. In the first three months of the year, arrests of noncriminals increased 150 percent, while arrests of criminals were up 15 percent, according to data provided by ICE.
In the first week after his inauguration, President Trump signed an order that made it clear it didn’t matter whether an immigrant had committed a violent crime or had received a speeding ticket.
“If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, recently told the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
Under Trump, the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally at the border has fallen to a record low. In April, there were fewer than 12,000, the third straight month of record lows. Supporters say Trump’s change in policies and tough rhetoric are stopping foreigners from even trying to enter the U.S.
But even before Trump’s election, the number of people entering illegally was falling, and the number of mostly Mexican nationals leaving was increasing.
Trump’s new approach is more like an exclamation point on a trend that was underway than the beginning of something new.
President Barack Obama focused on turning away immigrants at the border and deporting criminals, especially in his last few years in office. About two-thirds of those now in the country illegally have been here more than a decade, with the median being about 14 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
In order to ramp up enforcement under Trump, ICE has increased its deportations of noncriminals with families who live in the interior of the U.S., in places like Kansas. The Midwest has seen increases in immigration arrests and deportations more than the country as a whole, though it still represents a small part of the country’s immigration enforcement.
“Most of the criminal aliens we find in the interior of the United States, they entered as a noncriminal,” Homan, the acting ICE director, told Congress. “If we wait for them to violate yet another law against a citizen of this country, then it’s too late. We shouldn’t wait for them to become a criminal.”
This has created a steady drumbeat of media accounts and legal cases, which suggest that no immigrants are safe.
Even some Latino U.S. citizens have been targeted. A woman in California who has been a citizen for 20 years was arrested and detained overnight by immigration authorities. A citizen in Kentucky was held for three weeks.
In Hawaii, Andres Magana Ortiz, who lived in the U.S. for nearly 30 years and had an American wife and children, was recently deported, even though the judge handling his case called the decision he had to make unjust.
“President Trump has claimed that his immigration policies would target the ‘bad hombres,’ ” the judge said. “The government’s decision to remove Mr. Magana Ortiz shows that even the ‘good hombres’ are not safe.”
The Trump administration has remained firm. “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” said John F. Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’
Who’s leaving, who’s staying
The man who was deported in Wichita and his wife illustrate both how immigration policy has shifted toward arresting noncriminals and the exodus of Mexicans.
The woman and her husband want to remain anonymous for this article, but a representative of ICE verified that the husband had been deported for overstaying his visa, which is a crime, and for unspecified “criminal misdemeanor convictions.” The woman said her husband had received several traffic tickets, including for speeding, driving without insurance and driving without a license.
He had worked in Wichita since 2007 and before that in California and Arizona, she said. In 2011, the two of them met, fell in love, and he decided to stay.
He worked for a construction company in Wichita, for a couple of different car repair shops and did odd jobs. She dropped out of high school and has worked a few jobs but none lasting more than a year. She’s had to go to food banks for brief periods to get by, she said, but mostly her husband has found a way to get them through.
They moved in together within a few months of dating, sharing the $275 in rent, and in 2015, they were married. She’s a third-generation U.S. citizen on her mom’s side, so he could have applied to become a citizen through his marriage to her. But it costs money to hire a lawyer, get fingerprinted and file the applications, she said.
“Every time we tried to save up, something happened,” she said. “His mom got sick, and we needed to send money. His sister got sick or the car broke down – something always seemed to happen right when we needed to get going.”
He is the kind of low-skilled immigrant who most economists agree helps improve the economy overall. It’s not just that he works cheaply but also that workers like him free up skilled workers, like plumbers, site managers and architects, to do more.
But most economists also say his low-wage work probably helps keep wages down among low-skilled Americans, like his American-born wife. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach recently announced his campaign for governor in part on the argument that he would do more to get rid of these kinds of men, and thus the state budget would improve.
The argument has some merit: Many economists have pointed to how, even though immigrants are helping shore up national programs like Social Security, they often drain local resources, especially due to the cost of educating their children.
But it could do more harm than good trying to remove them at this point, according to a comprehensive study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The average unauthorized immigrant has been here for 14 years and the state has likely already paid much of their children’s educational expenses. Many have or will soon enter the workforce and will begin to pay taxes, the study shows. Sending them back now with their educated children would, in the long term, mean those educational investments never get paid back.
The impact on Kansas so far has been relatively muted: There just aren’t that many unauthorized immigrants in Kansas. Unauthorized immigrants tend to live in counties where there are lots of other unauthorized immigrants: 80 percent live in counties that have at least 10,000 such immigrants, and 70 percent of that population are concentrated in just six states.
Kansas has already seen its immigration population drop. The state was one of only seven that Pew estimated actually lost more unauthorized immigrants than it gained between 2009 and 2014, going from 95,000 to 75,000. It was the the largest percentage drop in the country, driven by an exodus of Mexicans returning home.
ICE doesn’t track the data by state, but in the Chicago region, of which Kansas is a part, total deportations represented just 2.5 percent of all deportations in the country the first three months of Trump’s presidency. It’s an even smaller percentage in Kansas itself. An ICE official hand-counted the number of Kansas arrests during a nationwide sweep in February. There were 31 arrests in Kansas, which represented less than 10 percent of the Chicago-area arrests during that sweep.
But some industry leaders, especially in rural Kansas, say they are starting to lose business because of a lack of workers. The American Farm Bureau Federation has said that farming, an industry in which about half of the workers are here illegally, is being hurt by the current approach to immigration. U.S. home builders continue to say in surveys that they’re being held back by a lack of workers.
Because all illegal immigrants now feel targeted and because those immigrants have been here so long, there has been increasing political resistance to the new policies. About 500 mostly Latino immigrants in Wichita skipped work in February as part of a national “Day Without Immigrants” to highlight their contributions to the city, and several hundred rallied again in May.
Yet to come
The woman whose husband was deported has decided that, as soon as her passport comes through, she is going to move to Mexico to be with her husband, who has found a job repairing air conditioning units in a large city in northern Mexico, where his family lives. They probably won’t be as well off there, she admitted, because the value of the peso is so low compared to the dollar.
Trump still champions building a wall between Mexico and the U.S., even though more than half of the immigrants here illegally didn’t sneak across the border: They entered legally and just stayed.
It’s for this reason that even Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a prominent opponent of illegal immigration, thinks the emphasis on the wall has been misplaced. He says it’s much more important to require employers to check immigration status and to track visas.
It appears that the impact of Trump’s immigration policy has been steady if not spectacular: The increasing arrests of nonviolent immigrants has been a slow trickle, which generates many small stories, rather than the national headlines generated during February’s wide-scale immigration bust. If the trend continues and ICE receives more funding, Kansans will eventually feel it more acutely.
“We just figured with Trump and all his laws and his changes on immigration it’s probably best that we try to take some time and just be away from Wichita,” the woman said. “If it’s our destiny to come back to the U.S. and fix (my husband’s) paperwork some day, we will.”