Some immigration lawyers have noticed a new vulnerable target: Those actively applying for residency status.
Terry Olsen, an attorney in Chattanooga, said some clients have received notice of removal proceedings from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents this summer, even as they were applying for protection.
There has not been an official policy change in the last couple of months. But anecdotally, Olsen and other lawyers told the Times Free Press they have seen shifting priorities among ICE agents.
Under President Barack Obama's administration, they said, immigration officers gave clients more leniency as they applied to become residents, assuming the clients didn't catch ICE's attention for other problems, such as felony arrests.
"It's like they're trying to make people be illegal here," Olsen said. "Then maybe (President Donald) Trump can go, 'Wow, look at it. We had millions of illegals here this year.' No. You had people who wanted to apply for a benefit, and you wouldn't let them. And now they're illegal."
A spokesman for ICE declined to comment, saying there are many reasons why agents may initiate removal proceedings against an immigrant.
Pamela Wilson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said she could not discuss any specific cases. But in general, she said, "USCIS policy has always been that any time someone is in unlawful status, there is a possibility of initiating removal proceedings."
Still, Olsen said that in 15 years he has never before seen clients face detainment or removal proceedings when they were applying to become permanent residents. He declined to discuss any specific case, but gave a general example.
Imagine a Middle Eastern woman, married to a U.S. citizen. She gets a tourist visa, which allows her six months in the United States. While here, she reaches out to Olsen to apply to become a resident. This whole process takes several months. Meanwhile, her visa expires.
In the past, Olsen said, ICE agents would be lenient, giving her time to go through the formal application process. But now, he said, agents will introduce her case into the court system.
"I don't know any U.S. citizen who can be OK with this," he said. "This is not about people running over the border, taking our jobs. You go to church with people like this."
He believes the driving force is a Feb. 21 policy memo written by Matthew Albence, ICE's executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations. In the memo, Albence explained how agents should enforce Trump's immigration policies.
"Effective immediately," Albence wrote, "[Enforcement and Removal Operations] officers will take enforcement actions against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties."
In other words?
"The priority system is now, basically, 'Everybody is a priority,'" said Bruce Buchanan, an immigration attorney in Nashville. "Whether [ICE agents] have discretion to detain them? That's unclear."
Like Olsen, Buchanan represents an immigrant who is applying to become a resident but faces deportation.
He's not sure exactly how his client came to the United States. But the man is married to a U.S. citizen and the custodian of an unaccompanied minor. A couple of weeks ago, Buchanan said, ICE agents asked his client to come in to talk about the child. When he arrived, they told the man they had begun removal proceedings. They arrested the man and moved him to Louisiana, where his family paid a $6,000 bond to bring him back, the attorney said.
Buchanan takes issue with ICE's actions. First, he said, his client was the breadwinner in his family, leaving his U.S. citizen wife and children vulnerable. Second, Buchanan said, cases like this further clog a busy court system.
At the end of fiscal 2016, U.S. immigration courts had a backlog of 516,000 cases, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Through June of this year, the backlog has grown by 18 percent.
Locally, the backlog increased even more. In Tennessee, it has jumped 28 percent, from 11,000 cases to 14,000. In Georgia, the backlog grew 38 percent, from 14,000 cases to 19,000.
"It's slowing the process down," Buchanan said. "It's frustrating to immigration judges, immigration attorneys. It's even frustrating to attorneys at the Department of Homeland Security."
Brittany Thomas Faith, a Chattanooga lawyer, is unsure whether cases like Buchanan's and Olsen's are becoming more frequent, though she said her clients overall have more trouble receiving immigration benefits than they did last year. Faith has not seen a client entered into removal proceedings while she worked on a residency application.
Still, she said, cases like these trouble her. In the past, attorneys knew that immigration officials would give their clients a six-month buffer after their visas expired. This gave them more time properly to fill out the tedious paperwork.
"It seems a little weird," Faith said. "I would understand after 180 days, if they were going after people. But before 180 days? Come on. You've got to have better things to do. What happened to going after criminal aliens? What happened to all the murderers and rapists?"
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.