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U.S. Begins Immigration Crackdown on Central Americans

4 Jan

Just before Christmas, government officials confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security was planning a clampdown on Central American migrants in January that would include women and children. The operation began in Georgia and Texas, immigration attorneys and advocates said Sunday.

Representatives of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Georgia and Texas declined to comment, saying the Homeland Security agency doesn’t discuss ongoing operations. It was unclear Sunday how many people had been taken into custody.

If the raids spread across the country, they would mark the first large-scale operation mounted specifically against Central Americans.

“We are expecting these raids to occur on a national level” since “these families are all over the country,” said Michelle Mendez, a lawyer with Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a national immigrant-rights organization.

A DHS official said Sunday that “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 added.

Victor Nieblas, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the plight of the immigrants needs to be taken into account. “These Central American women and children are truly refugees seeking asylum; they fear for their lives. These women and children must have a meaningful chance to claim protection instead of being rushed back into harm’s way,” he said.

Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, said that “we had a mother and her three children taken by ICE, pretending to be looking for a ‘criminal’ and asked to enter the house to check whether he was there.” Mr. Kuck added, “We do not yet know where they were taken.”

Many Central Americans likely to be targeted for removal missed court dates to fight their deportation because they lacked an attorney, advocates say. Public defenders aren’t provided to those in the country illegally.

“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,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

On Thursday, more than 150 national and local civil rights groups and religious, children’s and women’s organizations sent a letter to the president opposing planned raids.

The last time targeted roundups occurred on a large scale was about a decade ago, when the George W. Bush administration conducted high-profile raids at meatpacking plants and other work sites to detain undocumented workers.

The number of families trying to enter the U.S. illegally has jumped in recent months as gang-related violence grips El Salvador and Honduras. The region also has been plagued by drought.

Typically, the migrants turn themselves in at the border and make asylum claims. U.S. authorities then release them, often to live with relatives in the U.S., while their cases are adjudicated. Agents can track many of them down with relative ease because the government has their addresses.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in recent months warned that those whose claims are denied in immigration court could be removed from the country.

Despite an overall sharp drop in illegal entries in recent years, the Obama administration has been bracing for a surge of unaccompanied children and families from Central America in coming months.

In recent weeks, the federal government began to add capacity to handle the increase, because migrants are housed at least temporarily in government facilities.

More than 12,000 individuals in family units were apprehended at the border in October and November, compared with about 4,500 in the same months of 2014. The number of unaccompanied minors caught during those two months topped 10,000, compared with about 5,000 in the same period a year earlier.

That has raised concerns that the number of Central Americans trying to enter the country could jump in 2016, as it did in the summer of 2014, when more than 10,000 Central American minors a month came into the U.S.

In interviews, many of the migrants said they had heard they could remain in the U.S. if they reached the interior of the country.

Some mothers who had crossed with their children were forced to wear electronic bracelets to track their movements and ensure they reported for immigration hearings.

Many families remained detained at the border for months, drawing strong criticism from human-rights groups and immigration attorneys.

A federal judge ruled last year that immigration officials must quickly release from detention centers families with children, posing a further challenge to the administration’s efforts to curb the flow. The administration has appealed.

The Obama administration has been criticized by both immigrant advocates and immigration hard-liners over its border policy. Advocates dub President Barack Obama “deporter in chief” while Republicans accuse him of failing to secure the border.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted last week about the looming raids: “Democrats and President Obama are now, because of me, starting to deport people who are here illegally.”