HIGHLAND — Calling it unnecessary and an overreach, Region immigration attorneys are criticizing federal authorities' Tuesday roundup of eight construction workers allegedly in the U.S. illegally.
Authorities were initially targeting only one person for failing to register as a sex offender, but ultimately arrested seven others on civil immigration violations, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The arrests happened about 12:30 p.m. near 44th Street and Prairie Avenue in Highland during a construction crew's lunch break.
"It’s an overreach. Their discretion is supposed to be very broad, being part of the Department of Homeland Security, but it’s very unfair," Mayra Rodriguez-Alvarez, a Hammond immigration attorney, said. "Clearly, they were looking.
"I also wonder if these people would have been speaking English, or if they were light skinned, would they have been asked for their immigration status?"
'We do not ignore violators'
ICE calls these "collateral arrests" — meaning people who were not targets of initial arrests but were taken into custody because they were found to be illegally in the country during the encounter.
According to ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer, an agent from ICE’s criminal investigative branch was working Tuesday with the U.S. Marshals Great Lakes Regional Fugitive Task Force "and encountered a group of immigration violators as a result of locating the sex offender."
"Like any other law enforcement we do not ignore violators when we encounter them in the course of our duties," Neudauer said in a statement Wednesday.
"While ICE remains focused on criminal alien offenders, we no longer exempt groups from enforcement," Neudauer added, noting the changes "are reflected by the many statements" made by the Secretary of Homeland Security's office and leadership of ICE over the past year and per President Donald Trump's executive orders signed in January 2017.
Alfredo Estrada, a Merrillville attorney who specializes in immigration law, said Trump's January 2017 executive order expanded the number of people ICE would target for deportation, essentially placing everyone on equal footing — whether the person has a criminal history or not.
The order provides ICE with broad authority to prioritize all undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation.
"So any individual who is here on VISA overstay or entry without inspection or parole is on the same footing as someone who commits a very serious crime," Estrada said.
Of the eight, one has since been released because he was already in deportation proceedings, according to ICE. The others remain in custody pending disposition of their cases, Neudauer said.
A subcontractor with the company on site did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Several workers were sitting in the grass Tuesday eating lunch when they were encountered by the federal agents.
Rodriguez-Alvarez said once a person is arrested on immigration violation allegations, they are detained while awaiting removal court proceedings unless they qualify to bond out.
"It’s an awful situation to go through for those families. Imagine you get up for work one day and you may not see your family again, or for a very long time," she said.
Bond in immigration cases can range anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000, depending on the individual circumstances and the person's criminal history, Rodriguez-Alvarez said, and bond must be paid in full.
This week, a federal judge rejected Trump's executive order that aims to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, calling it "arbitrary" and "capricious."
But the judge also delayed the reopening of the program and gave the Trump administration 90 days to makes its case, again, justifying why the DACA program is illegal.
"I don’t think the administration should get a second bite of the apple. It's really troubling they have a 90-day window to do that," Estrada said. "We don’t know what’s going to happen."
Estrada said he's hopeful the DACA program will be here to stay and new applicants will soon be accepted. But he equally cautioned too much optimism absent Congress passing a comprehensive immigration reform package.
In response to The Times' request for information, including the names of those detained, an ICE spokesman deferred additional questions to the U.S. Marshals Services, adding that the agency "does not proactively release lists of names" per agency policy.