At the end of last week, Steven Branch, the Utah head of Immigration & Customs Enforcement, stood before a room of 50 people and told them in Spanish, "Don't be afraid."
The meeting, at the Mexican Consulate's offices on 1370 Main, Salt Lake City, was billed as an opportunity by the consulate for community members of Latino descent, whether documented or not, to air their concerns and questions to Branch. Consul Soccoro Rovirosa told the mix of community activists, Latino media and families that the point of the gathering was so people "don't feel fear to go to the authorities."
Branch said his position was clear: "I have a responsibility to arrest people who are here illegally. We don't look for many people to search. We have priorities. We look for national-security risks and people who have committed crimes and been convicted." Somebody who is in Utah illegally, but has not committed a crime, we are not looking for them."
He also denied an oft-repeated rumor that ICE was combing the streets for undocumented aliens. "We only go to people's homes when we have an order of deportation," he said.
He turned to talk about recent memos from the U.S. government calling for ICE to employ "prosecutorial discretion" in some cases, meaning "the factors we need to look at [...] to make a determination not to take enforcement action [i.e., putting someone in deportation proceedings]." But if cases were closed at a prosecutor's discretion, "that won't give you anything," he noted. "It will only determine if you stay and are not removed."
Branch said he, too, was the descendant of immigrants, his grandparents having come from Italy to Ellis Island 100 years ago.
Branch urged listeners to contact him directly through the consul if they had concerns.
One woman complained she was at the point of losing her family home after her husband had been arrested by ICE officials following an alleged tip-off by an American citizen who had falsely accused him of being convicted of a crime in 2005. She was scared, she said, that she and her husband would be deported and their American-citizen child be left alone in Utah.
Branch urged her to contact him through Consul Rovirosa. She, in turn, pointed out her office was pursuing a campaign to have American-born children of Mexican parents registered as Mexican, so if their parents were deported, the consulate could have the legal power to take the child across the border to their family.
A woman asked Branch about numerous reports of undocumented aliens being arrested by ICE shortly after they visited the DMV to get a driving-privilege card or to have one renewed. Branch said he had become aware several months ago that DMV officials were passing on to ICE the fingerprints of anyone who is undocumented and has criminal convictions. This followed new legislation. The woman responded she had heard reports that ICE was showing up at the door of undocumented people who did not have criminal backgrounds after they had visited the DMV.
Branch promised to meet with anyone who had concerns. "In this job, you can never please anyone. You do too much or you do too little," as far as the extremes of those involved in the immigration debate were concerned. But he was also clear, "It's important to follow leads to identify criminal aliens."
Rovirosa and Branch both expressed the hope further such meetings would take place. Branch said five years ago, he would host such Q&As with the community and up to 5,000 people attended. For now, though, only a few handful feel comfortable enough to come out of the shadows to listen to him.