The Trump administration is deploying law enforcement tactical units from the southern border as part of a supercharged arrest operation in sanctuary cities across the country, an escalation in the president’s battle against localities that refuse to participate in immigration enforcement.
The specially trained officers are being sent to cities including Chicago and New York to boost the enforcement power of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, according to two officials who are familiar with the secret operation. Additional agents are expected to be sent to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit, and Newark.
The move reflects President Trump’s persistence in cracking down on sanctuary cities, localities that have refused to cooperate in handing over immigrants targeted for deportation to federal authorities. It comes soon after the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security announced measures that will affect both American citizens and immigrants living in those places.
Lawrence Payne, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, confirmed the agency was deploying 100 officers to work with ICE, which conducts arrests in the interior of the country, “in order to enhance the integrity of the immigration system, protect public safety, and strengthen our national security.”
The deployment of the teams will run from February through May, according to an e-mail sent to CBP personnel, which was read to The New York Times by one official familiar with the planning.
Among the agents being deployed to sanctuary cities are members of the elite tactical unit known as BORTAC, which acts essentially as the SWAT team of the Border Patrol. With additional gear such as stun grenades and enhanced Special Forces-type training, including sniper certification, the officers typically conduct high-risk operations targeting individuals who are known to be violent, many of them with extensive criminal records.
The unit’s work often takes place in the most rugged and swelteringly hot areas of the border. It can involve breaking into stash houses maintained by smuggling operations that are known to be filled with drugs and weapons.
In sanctuary cities, the BORTAC agents will be asked to support interior officers in run-of-the-mill immigration arrests, the officials said. Their presence could spark new fear in immigrant communities that have been on high alert under the stepped-up deportation and detention policies adopted after Trump took office.
In a statement, ICE’s acting director, Matthew Albence, said the deployment comes in response to policies adopted by sanctuary cities, which have made it harder for immigration agents to do their jobs.
“As we have noted for years, in jurisdictions where we are not allowed to assume custody of aliens from jails, our officers are forced to make at-large arrests of criminal aliens who have been released into communities,” he said. “When sanctuary cities release these criminals back to the street, it increases the occurrence of preventable crimes, and more importantly, preventable victims.”
But Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner of CBP, which oversees tactical units along the border, said sending the officers to conduct immigration enforcement within cities, where they are not trained to work, could escalate situations that are already volatile. He called the move a “significant mistake.”
“If you were a police chief and you were going to make an apprehension for a relatively minor offense, you don’t send the SWAT team. And BORTAC is the SWAT team,” said Kerlikowske, who is the former chief of police in Seattle. “They’re trained for much more hazardous missions than this.”
The Border Patrol squads will be charged with backing up ICE agents during deportation operations and standing by as a show of force, the officials said.
ICE agents typically seek out people with criminal convictions or multiple immigration violations as their primary targets for deportation, but family members and friends are often swept up in the enforcement net in what are known as “collateral” arrests, and many such people could now be caught up in any enhanced operations.
ICE leadership requested the help in sanctuary jurisdictions because agents there often struggle to track down immigrants living in the country illegally without the help of the police and other state and local agencies. Law enforcement officers in areas that refuse to cooperate with ICE and the Border Patrol — which include both liberal and conservative parts of the country — often argue that doing so pushes people living in the country illegally further into the shadows, ultimately making cities less safe because that segment of the population becomes less likely to report crimes or cooperate with investigations.
The goal of the new joint operation, one of the officials said, was to increase arrests in the sanctuary jurisdictions by at least 35 percent.
The operation reflects an increasingly hawkish approach to immigration enforcement, following the firings and resignations of leaders who have been viewed in the White House as unwilling to take the harsh steps Trump and his advisers view as necessary to slow illegal immigration.