Immigration agents have begun rounding up Central American immigrants who have not complied with deportation orders, according to multiple published reports.
The raids have taken place in Texas and Georgia, and mark the first of what reportedly will be a national effort by the Obama administration to crack down on Central Americans who showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border by the tens of thousands in 2014 – often in family units and usually seeking political asylum.
“We are expecting these raids to occur on a national level” since “these families are all over the country,” Michelle Mendez, a lawyer with Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a national immigrant-rights organization, told the Wall Street Journal.
Reports began circulating in the last week of December that the administration was planning to conduct mass raids to track down and deport Central Americans who had ignored deportation orders.
The reports came as the number of Central Americans seeking to enter the United States through the border rose again after having remained low for the better part of a year.
Many of the immigrants, who included thousands of unaccompanied minors, told of fleeing because of rampant gang violence and poverty in Central America. Many youths said they had fled after being pressured to, as they put it, “join or die” gangs. Most of the families have fled from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the raids on Monday, saying they are necessary to deter migrants from illegally crossing the border.
"I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough," Johnson said. "I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities."
He said his agency was simply making sure people follow federal laws.
"As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," he said. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."
Critics of the administration’s handling of the border surge, which reached a peak in the summer of 2014, pointed out that migrants who were surveyed last year said they believed that anyone who managed to get into the United States would be allowed to stay.
Immigration advocacy groups are assailing the administration for choosing to expel families that ended up with deportation orders, they say, only because they lacked legal counsel to make their case for political asylum.
“Instead of ensuring access to legal counsel and due process so eligibility for asylum can be properly determined, the federal government is sending these families back to the terror and violence they fled. America is better than this,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told the Journal.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Georgia and Texas declined to comment to the newspaper about on the raids.
The WSJ quoted an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official as saying, “Attempting to unlawfully enter the United States as a family unit does not protect individuals from being subject to the immigration laws of this country.”
“The repatriation of individuals with final orders of removal — including families and unaccompanied minors — to their home countries is part of our broader ongoing effort to address the rising surge of families and individuals arriving at our southern border,” the official said.
Immigration attorneys in Georgia and Texas depict the raids as overzealous, and say they do not know where many of the families were taken after being picked up by ICE agents.
Charles Kuck, an attorney in Atlanta, was quoted in the Journal as saying that one mother and her three children were taken into custody when ICE agents “pretending to be looking for a ‘criminal,’ ... asked to enter the house to check whether he was there.”
Kuck added, “We do not yet know where they were taken.”
In anticipation of the raids, scores of rights groups sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week protesting the plan to conduct mass arrests of Central Americans.
In October and November, about 12,000 people, usually coming in family units, were arrested at the border. That is about three times as many as were arrested during those months in the surge year of 2014.
At one point in 2014, about 10,000 Central American minors were arriving each month – presenting a dilemma that the administration is eager not to relive.
As with almost any aspect of immigration, the issue of the unaccompanied Central American minors became a political point of contention, with those who prefer a hard line pushing for them to be returned, and those who want more leniency saying they should be allowed to remain here.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton drew the ire of immigration advocacy groups when she said in 2014 that the children should be returned to their homelands.
Meanwhile, GOP candidate Donald Trump says that the Obama administration is taking a page from his campaign promise of mass deportations to address illegal immigrants already here and to deter others from coming without permission.
“Democrats and President Obama are now," the GOP front-runner has said, "because of me, starting to deport people who are here illegally.”
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