Hundreds, possibly thousands, of families in the United States illegally aren’t likely to have a good start to 2016.
Reports in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal claim that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is planning a series of raids targeting hundreds of families who entered the country illegally since the start of last year and have already been ordered removed from the country by an immigration judge.
The nationwide campaign could begin as soon as the first week of January, according to the Post, which cited multiple unnamed sources who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity because the operation hasn’t been approved by DHS.
An official told the Journal that the decision to pursue family units – which include minors who entered the U.S. with one parent – is intended to convey a message to would-be border-crossers that they will not be allowed to remain in the U.S.
While not commenting on any possible ICE operation, spokesperson Marsha Catron told the Post that DHS chief Jeh 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.”
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, told the WSJ, “Jeh Johnson wants to send a message to Central Americans: don’t come north. But Washington hasn’t solved the underlying problem of massive violence in their home countries that is causing them to come north in the first place.”
Although the overall number of undocumented migrants entering the country has fallen in recent years, the flow of family units and minors traveling alone fleeing Central American violence has risen dramatically.
According to the Journal, more than 12,000 people in family units were caught crossing the border without documentation in October and November of this year, almost three times as much as the 4,500 who entered during the same months last year.
At the peak of the so-called border surge in the summer of 2014, more than 10,000 Central American minors entered the U.S. illegally every month.
The current administration’s detention and deportation policy has had something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to it over the years. While more undocumented migrants have been deported during President Barack Obama’s time in office than under any other chief executive, he is characterized as soft on immigration by conservatives, chiefly for the executive actions on immigration that he announced at the end of last year that extended deportation protections to millions of undocumented people currently in the country.
Immigrant advocates are alarmed at the possibility of mass raids and deportations of families.
“It would be an outrage if the administration subjected Central American families to even more aggressive enforcement tactics,” Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Post. “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.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told the paper. “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.”
The emergence of the report coincides with a recent court ruling that families cannot be maintained for long in government detention centers.
“This is the last thing we expected from the administration at this point, given the court decision,” Marilena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, told the Journal. “It is time that administration acknowledge once and for all that these mothers and children are refugees.”
Earlier this week, the administration reported that 235,413 people were deported during Fiscal Year 2015, which ended Sept. 30 – 25 percent less than the 315,953 deported in 2014 and the lowest annual figure during Obama’s White House tenure.