Alaska News

Alaska's federal immigration agents used to be known for raids. Will they be again?

Federal immigration agents keep a much lower profile in Alaska than they once did. But no one is sure yet how that might change under the evolving immigration policy of President Donald Trump.

Back in the 1990s, agents for what was then the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service made headlines regularly for raids at restaurants, hotels and fish processing plants across Alaska.

In 1997, the INS was doing "five to 10 sweeps a month" at businesses, according to an Anchorage Daily News story from the time.

That year, the agency conducted coordinated raids — with names like "Operation Cheechako" — in the fish processing industry in locations from the Pribilof Islands to Juneau that ousted hundreds of workers suspected of being in the country illegally.

Some business owners complained the agents were unduly harsh. One business raid at an Anchorage chain of plant nurseries around that time went so badly the owner called the agents "abusive, profane, belligerent and hostile," in the newspaper.

[Trump says he's open to legal pathway for undocumented immigrants]

By 1999, the INS employed 83 people at 13 offices around the state, the Daily News reported at the time. That year, the agency boasted it had rounded up 800 illegal immigrants for deportation in Alaska over a period of two years.


"INS was really very aggressive," said Mara Kimmel, a former immigration attorney and wife of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. "I think people thought they could come up here and be far away, and that was really not the case."

It was in this era the agency did things like send 17 agents to Dutch Harbor to check for Chinese stowaways aboard a freighter. (The agents found no stowaways.)

After 9/11, the law enforcement wing of the INS was replaced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, under the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Alaska ICE agents still made the news from time to time. In 2006, federal immigration agents raided a Kenai fish-processor, arresting 25 young Mexican workers who'd entered the country on tourist visas.

New priorities

But during the Obama administration things got much, much quieter, immigration attorneys say.

Under the Obama White House, ICE was told to prioritize the deportation of convicted criminals, said Margaret Stock, a longtime immigration attorney.

"People who were married to citizens, who had citizen kids and had no criminal record were not considered a priority for deportation," she said.

"I haven't seen any worksite enforcement or raids or much of anything," Stock said.

There was a time, Kimmel said, when police would pull someone over for a minor traffic infraction that might lead to questions about "where they were from, and being asked for documents. They would call INS at that point."

[Trump details plans to deport millions of immigrants]

Around the time Chief Mark Mew took over the Anchorage Police Department in 2010, that stopped happening.

"Some people thought we should be (a 'sanctuary city') and others thought no, the cops should be out there enforcing the law vigorously," Mew said.

The department decided to strike a middle ground: In some situations, it's appropriate to call in federal immigration authorities, he said. But routinely asking people about their immigration status and calling ICE puts up walls between local police and immigrant communities, he said.

Today, Anchorage police continue the practice.

"In the normal course of business our officers don't stop people and ask them questions about their immigration status, and we don't contact ICE," said Sean Case, APD's deputy chief for administration.

There are still some in-depth criminal investigations where officers coordinate with federal immigration authorities, he said.


"We want victims to be able to come forward," Case said.

The Alaska State Troopers don't profile people or investigate their immigration status, said spokesperson Megan Peters.

But "if in the course of an investigation or contact a Trooper suspects a person is in the country illegally, they would notify ICE," she said.

In recent years, ICE agents in Alaska have been involved in criminal prosecutions of Medicaid fraud and other behind-the-scenes work. But immigration attorneys say they can't remember hearing of high-profile raids like those of the 1990s.

ICE in Alaska today

It's hard to know how Alaska ICE agents see their daily work and how it might change under new enforcement priorities, because the agency won't make them available to talk to the media.

ICE officials will reveal almost nothing about the agency's current work in Alaska.

A regional spokesperson, Rose Richeson, would only confirm ICE has an office in Anchorage. She would not say how many officers are in Alaska. She did not respond to a question about whether satellite offices exist in the state, though one is listed in Dutch Harbor.


Richeson wrote: "Deportation officers conduct targeted enforcement operations every day in locations around the country" in service of "the agency's ongoing efforts to protect the nation, uphold public safety and protect the integrity of our immigration laws and border controls."

It's also not clear how many people in Alaska are taken into ICE custody and ultimately deported from Alaska. People who are arrested are transferred to a federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington, for processing.

Arrest numbers aren't tracked by state, but by a three-state region that also includes Washington and Oregon, Richeson said.

In the 2016 fiscal year, some 2,124 people were deported from the three-state area. Of those, 729 were convicted criminals.

The Alaska Department of Corrections said so far this year four inmates who are not U.S. citizens were handed over to federal agencies, but data don't show if it was ICE or another federal law enforcement group.

'It all continues to unfold'

Will Alaska return to the days of workplace raids and hundreds of deportations a year?

Nobody is sure yet, immigration attorneys say.

[A morning in Alaska's little-known federal immigration court]

People already in the court process will presumably be allowed to continue with it, said attorney Jason Baumetz with the Alaska Immigration Justice Project.

The Trump administrative order expanded the number of people who fall into the category of expedited removal, in which people are removed from the country without a court hearing.

Before, Baumetz said, expedited removal only applied to people picked up within 100 miles of the border, who'd been in the country for less than 14 days.


Now, it will apply to people anywhere who've been in the country for less than two years.

That could include a lot more people in Alaska, though it's unclear how aggressive ICE will be in tracking them down.

"It all continues to unfold," said Baumetz.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.