By MIRIAM JORDAN
A new Obama administration plan to deport Central American families has drawn the ire of immigration advocates and two Democratic presidential candidates, and derision from immigration opponents, who doubt it will achieve its goals.
Starting early next month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Department of Homeland Security unit, plans to start rounding up hundreds of families who entered the U.S. illegally and have ignored a final order from an immigration judge to leave, according to an official with knowledge of the plan.
The move comes as the number of Central American families and children caught crossing the border has jumped in recent months, prompting fears that another migration crisis could be in the making. In 2014, the border was flooded with unaccompanied children fleeing gang violence, drought and poor economic conditions in Central America.
The official said the operation aims to send the message to would-be crossers that they won’t be allowed to remain in the U.S. Typically, women and children turn themselves in at the border and make asylum claims. Authorities then release them, often to live with relatives in the U.S., while their claims are considered.
The operation also seeks to address safety concerns involved as adults entrust their lives and those of their children to human smugglers, the official said.
Foes of illegal immigration are skeptical that the operation will have a deterrent effect or strengthen border security; immigrant advocates say targeting families distracts from more serious problems, such as terrorism, and doesn’t address the root causes of the migration surge.
“We would love to believe DHS is serious about sending a different message to the rest of the world that our borders are not open, but we won’t believe it until we see it,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which lobbies for curbs on immigration. He called the plan “far too little and too late.”
‘It is time that administration acknowledge once and for all that these mothers and children are refugees just like Syrians.’
—Marilena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles
The George W. Bush Administration conducted high-profile raids at meatpacking plants and other work sites to round up undocumented immigrants. But the prospect of armed agents entering homes across the country would be unprecedented, immigration experts said. It also would mark the first large-scale operation mounted specifically against Central Americans.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” said Susan Weishar, who studies migration at the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans.
Such an operation conjures images of federal agents prying Elian Gonzalez, then a child, out of the arms of his relatives in Miami to return him to his father in Cuba in 2000, said Ms. Weishar, who referred to the Obama plan as “Elian Gonzalez on steroids.”
Two Democratic candidates split publicly with the Obama administration. Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was “disturbed” by news of the raids, while former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said the idea was “wrong.”
The campaign of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, had a more measured comment, saying she has “real concerns” about the plan. Mrs. Clinton previously has expressed support for deporting some Central Americans.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump tweeted on Friday: “Democrats and President Obama are now, because of me, starting to deport people who are here illegally.”
In recent months, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has warned that those whose claims are denied in immigration court could be removed from the country.
On Friday, the White House directed requests for comment to DHS. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t dispute that an operation has been planned. “As Secretary 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, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values,” she said in a statement.
The media spotlight is likely to undermine the operation by prompting immigrants to move. The Central Americans have settled across the U.S., with large pockets in Houston, Los Angeles and the Washington, D.C., area.
News of raids rippled through migrant communities over Christmas weekend, damping the holiday spirit.
“You talk raids and the result is a lot of confusion and panic,” said Cirilo Villa, a community leader in Mississippi, where many immigrants work in casinos, landscaping and construction.
“We are trying to counsel people on how to react if agents knock on their door.”
In New Orleans, home to many Hondurans, activist Cristiane Rosales-Fajardo said that people are on edge. “They know they’re easy targets because they’re already in the system,” she said.
The operation, which was reported by the Washington Post on Thursday, has caused controversy in Mr. Johnson’s agency, the official said, with some within DHS opposed to targeting families fleeing violence.
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, it began to add capacity to handle the increase, because migrants are housed at least temporarily in government facilities.
More than 12,000 individuals in so-called family units were apprehended at the border in October and November; about 4,500 were apprehended in the same months last year.
The number of unaccompanied minors caught during those two months topped 10,000, compared with about 5,000 in the same period last year.
Targeting these migrants when the administration is faced with terrorism risks “seems like an about-face from the president’s actions in prioritizing the enforcement of immigration laws,” said Angelo Paparelli, a Los Angeles immigration attorney. “I worry that a terrorist incident might occur because the eyes of DHS are distracted.”
In the 2014 fiscal year, 68,541 unaccompanied children entered the U.S., the majority of them from Central America. During the peak of the crisis during the summer that year, more than 10,000 Central American minors a month entered the U.S.
In interviews, many of the women with children said they had heard they could stay in the U.S. if they reached the country’s interior.
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 this year that immigration officials must quickly release children from detention centers, posing a further challenge to the administration’s efforts to curb the flow. The administration has appealed.
Central American minors and families with children have been prioritized by immigration courts, but a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the courts, said that most cases are still pending due to a large backlog.
Between July 18, 2014, and Nov. 24, 2015, the courts received 46,956 cases for immigration violations by unaccompanied minors. Of the 19,326 adjudicated cases, 9,109 were ordered removed. The courts received 6,180 cases of adults with children. Out of 905 adjudicated cases, 726 were ordered removed.
The Obama administration has been lambasted by both immigrant advocates and immigration hard-liners over its border policy. Advocates call President Barack Obama “deporter in chief” and Republicans accuse him of failing to secure the border.
“As much as anything, this is the Obama administration trying to convince the American public they are taking this seriously and doing something about it,“ said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that lobbies to curtail all immigration to the U.S.
“But, in fact, the message getting back is that if you show up at the border, especially with kids in tow, chances are you will be allowed to remain here,” he said.
The plan caught immigrant advocates by surprise. “This is the last thing we expected from the administration at this point, given the court decision,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy organization in Los Angeles. “It is time that the administration acknowledged once and for all that these mothers and children are refugees just like Syrians.”
In these kind of operations, immigration agents compile lists of targets for deportation in three categories: those who have been ordered removed in absentia because they didn’t attend a scheduled immigration hearing; those who have fought to stay in the U.S. in court and lost; and those who accepted voluntary removal but failed to leave the country.
Before raiding a home or site, field agents conduct surveillance to verify that individuals on their lists are at the address that authorities have for them.