A one-year-old from El Salvador clings to his mother after she turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents on Dec. 7, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. They had just illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas.
The Department of Homeland Security has begun preparing for a series of raids that would target for deportation hundreds of families who have flocked to the United States since the start of last year, according to people familiar with the operation.The nationwide campaign, to be carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents as soon as early January, would be the first large-scale effort to deport families who have fled violence in Central America, those familiar with the plan said. More than 100,000 families with both adults and children have made the journey across the southwest border since last year, though this migration has largely been overshadowed by a related surge of unaccompanied minors.The ICE operation would target only adults and children who have already been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge, according to officials familiar with the undertaking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because planning is ongoing and the operation has not been given final approval by DHS. The adults and children would be detained wherever they can be found and immediately deported. The number targeted is expected to be in the hundreds and possibly greater.
The proposed deportations have been controversial inside the Obama administration, which has been discussing them for several months. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has been pushing for the moves, according to those with knowledge of the debate, in part because of a new spike in the number of illegal immigrants in recent months. Experts say that the violence that was a key factor in driving people to flee Central America last year has surged again, with the homicide rate in El Salvador reaching its highest level in a generation. A drought in the region has also prompted departures.The pressure for deportations has also mounted because of a recent court decision that ordered DHS to begin releasing families housed in detention centers.
Although Johnson has signaled publicly for months that Central American families not granted asylum would face deportation, the plan is likely to trigger renewed backlash from Latino groups and immigrant advocates, who have long accused the administration of overly harsh detention policies even as Republicans deride President Obama as soft on border security.
Advocates have not been briefed on the plans and on Wednesday expressed concern. They cited what they called flaws and abuses in the government’s treatment and legal processing of the families, many of whom are fleeing danger or persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.“It would be an outrage if the administration subjected Central American families to even more aggressive enforcement tactics,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This administration has never acknowledged the truth: that these families are refugees seeking asylum who should be given humanitarian protection rather than being detained or rounded up. When other countries are welcoming far more refugees, the U.S. should be ashamed for using jails and even contemplating large-scale deportation tactics.”
Groups that have called for stricter immigration limits said the raids are long overdue and remained skeptical about whether the scale would be large enough to deter future illegal immigration from Central America.“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “What share is this going to be?. . . It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number they’ve admitted into the country. If you have photogenic raids on a few dozen illegal families and that’s the end of it, it’s just for show. It’s just a [public relations] thing, enforcement theater.”
Marsha Catron, a DHS spokeswoman, would not comment on any possible ICE operations but pointed out that Johnson “has consistently said our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values.”