The acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Wednesday that he would follow through with plans to send agents into communities to round up and deport families in the U.S. illegally, in the Trump administration’s latest attempt to deter large-scale migration of Central Americans to the southwest border.
The acting director, Mark Morgan, who has signaled for weeks that there would be a heightened focus on deporting families, told reporters that agents would target more than 2,000 immigrant family members who already have deportation orders.
“Do not come,” Morgan said in describing the message he wants to send to people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who think they will be able to remain in the United States once they get across the border. “Do not risk it. Do not pay the cartels an exorbitant amount of money because once you receive due process and get a final order, you will be removed.”
Morgan’s comments came after President Donald Trump tweeted Monday that the immigration agency would deport millions of people next week. The president’s tweet alarmed immigrant communities and blindsided immigration agents across the country who described such a massive operation as logistically impossible.
The agency has, however, taken steps in recent days to prepare for mass arrests, including requesting the help of Homeland Security investigative agents, who usually conduct long-term investigations into trafficking organizations as opposed to deportations.
“I don’t want to send ICE agents to their workplace,” Morgan said. “I don’t want to send ICE agents to their home. I don’t want to send ICE agents to try and track them down and apprehend them in their communities and town. But we’ve applied due process. We’ve tried to work with them.”
The targeted operation is expected to occur over the course of multiple days and is expected in the coming weeks, according to a Homeland Security Department official who was not authorized to speak specifically about the operation. Morgan did not reveal the full scope of the operation but said that agents would be rounding up unauthorized immigrant families if they failed to report to an immigration agency field office for deportation.
Immigration officials have said the increase in migration has crowded facilities and pushed resources beyond capacity, prompting the release of migrants into the general population.
More than 144,200 migrants were taken into custody at the border last month, the highest monthly total in 13 years. Many of them seek asylum but only a minority of them ultimately win their cases in immigration courts. The families are usually released to live with relatives in the United States while their deportation cases wind through immigration court.
Among the 2,000 unauthorized immigrants being targeted now are those whose court cases were expedited, having typically missed a court date and been ordered deported from the country in absentia. They were sent letters in February demanding they report to an immigration and customs office to leave the country, Morgan said.
While Morgan said the agency would still target violent criminals for removal, “priorities do not mean other categories are exempt.”
“And again,” he added, “I think family units are a good example of that.”
Homeland Security Department officials have changed their minds multiple times in recent days over when to start the operations. Officials have been nervous about creating scenes of armed agents pulling children from homes and the possibility that some families could be separated.
“It’s people, and people are complicated,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, the former acting director of the immigration and customs agency who had his nomination pulled by Trump after he warned of the bad impressions the raids would leave. “Some of them might be sick and need to be treated for illness. Some might be separated in a way that the child might be at school and the parents at home.”
More than 207,000 migrants have been released since December of last year, Morgan said. Many of them, he said, have taken advantage of laws that prevent the extended confinement of children, which enabled families to be quickly released after being apprehended.
“It’s clear if you grab a child, that’s your passport in the United States,” Morgan said.
But the mass arrests come with logistical challenges.
There is limited space in the family detention facilities where migrants would be held while the government tries to secure their travel documents, which are required to deport them. But keeping families there could result in violations of the agreement, known as the Flores settlement, that established standards for the detention of children and limits it to 20 days.
While immigration authorities could theoretically deport all those who have evaded removal orders, they will not be able to remove them all immediately. They are likely to contend with motions to reopen cases of those migrants who missed their hearing along with requests for a stay of removal.
Among the reasons immigrants could cite to justify reopening their case would be their failure to receive proper notice of the removal hearing; extraordinary circumstances like serious illness that prevented them from appearing; or conditions that have further deteriorated in their home country, giving them new grounds for applying for asylum.
The result, immigration lawyers predicted, is likely to be a flood of challenges clogging the already overburdened court system.
“Lawyers are going to come running,” said Kelli Stump, an immigration lawyer in Oklahoma City who specializes in removal defense.