Critics say ICE officers already cast wide net, often snaring legal immigrants

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Critics of ICE operations say officers are being over-zealous when going after illegal immigrants. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Critics of ICE operations say officers are being over-zealous when going after illegal immigrants. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

During the first four months of this fiscal year, 264 people who were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Arizona, ended up being cleared after an immigration judge found "no grounds for removal." Another 1,350 undocumented immigrants were allowed to stay, after making their cases in court.

In total, half of the immigrants who argued cases in immigration courts in Arizona were granted the right to stay in the United States. That is according to statics compiled TRAC Immigration, a Syracuse University program that compiles immigration court data from across the country.

Immigrant advocates say the statistics are evidence that ICE officers already cast too wide a net in their hunt for undocumented immigrants.

"ICE is not as thorough as the entire public would like to believe," said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, who is a Phoenix-area immigration attorney. "They make a lot of mistakes," said Maldonado.

One of those mistakes occurred in 2014. CBS 5 Investigates agreed to conceal the identity of a man who is a permanent legal resident, so he would share his story.

"I was at home, getting ready for work. It was about 5:30 in the morning, and they knocked on the door," said the man. He said "they" were ICE officers, who took him into custody, claiming he was going to undergo removal proceedings because of a domestic violence conviction from 1992. The problem was they had the wrong man. This man was 12 years old in '92.

"I was like, 'How can it be a case on me if I was 12 years old at the time?'" the man said.

He said the officers did not listen.

He was in detention for three months before a lawyer was able to show a judge they had the wrong man.

"I lost everything I had. We had our apartment. We had our vehicles. I lost my job," he said.

With the recent announcement that President Donald Trump is expanding the pool of immigrants that ICE officers should seek to detain, many in the undocumented community are scared and going into hiding.

"It's terrifying to see so much fear in our community," said Maldonado.

He says his office phone has been ringing off the hook with immigrants calling to find out what they should do if they are detained by ICE officers.

Some immigrants are looking to religion for protection.

"I am here because I received a deportation letter," said Ishmael Delgado, as he sat in the pews of Shadow Rock United Church of Christ.

An electric candle flickering in the tall church window indicates this is a sanctuary church.

Delgado and another undocumented immigrant named Sixto Paz have been living here for months, waiting for their immigration appeals to work their way through court.

"I can leave, but I don't want to leave," said Paz.

Both men say they feel protected in the church, banking on the idea that federal agents would not venture onto church property to arrest them.

They both own homes in the Valley and have families. They say it's difficult to be separated, but they hope that by avoiding arrest, their cases will eventually turn out in their favor.

The statistics show that they may be correct.

Of the roughly 3,300 cases that worked their way through Arizona immigration courts since October, more than half resulted in the immigrants being allowed to stay in the country.

ICE officials dispute the idea that those statistics mean they are being overzealous. Ysameen Pitts O'Keefe, with ICE public affairs, offered this statement to CBS 5 Investigates:

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, border security, and the integrity of the nation’s immigration system. This includes convicted criminals and those apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States. More detailed information related to ICE’s enforcement priorities can be found in this memorandum issued Feb. 20 by the Department of Homeland Security Secretary.

ICE only processes individuals for removal when all of the available evidence indicates, clearly and convincingly, that the individual is amenable to deportation. Moreover, in many instances regulations require ICE to place certain persons in removal proceedings. Once that occurs, it is up to immigration judges with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to hear evidence in the case and make a final determination about an individual’s deportability. An immigration judge may find that an individual is deportable, but qualifies for one of the many forms of legal relief that are available. The fact the courts make such a finding is not an indication ICE erred by initiating removal proceedings, but rather that our longstanding system which affords individuals due process and legal review works.”

A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration review offered a statement, which reads in part:

"Each case has its own set of facts and variables that affect its outcome. Immigration judges adjudicate the matters before them on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. immigration law, regulations and precedent decisions. Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case based on that information."

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards , two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. Last fall, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is a graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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