Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced "concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children."

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced "concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children." Barry Bahler/DHS

Homeland Security Launches New Crackdown on Illegal Immigrants

ICE raids on Central Americans do cause pain, Secretary Johnson acknowledges.

Following through on a plan leaked to the press before Christmas, the Homeland Security Department on Monday announced that its Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau this weekend began raids as part of “concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children,” Secretary Jeh Johnson announced.

The move—politically dicey during an election campaign with immigration as a top issue—forms part of the Obama administration’s response to the surge during the spring and summer of 2014 of unaccompanied children across the U.S. southern border from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Though many of them were fleeing political violence and weak economies, their arrival brought criticism of the administration’s effectiveness in border security from many Republicans, governors and members of Congress.

“As part of these operations, 121 individuals were taken into custody, primarily from Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina, and they are now in the process of being repatriated” via ICE’s family residential centers, where they will receive travel documents and board a flight home, Johnson said in a statement. “The focus of this weekend’s operations were adults and their children who (i) were apprehended after May 1, 2014, crossing the southern border illegally, (ii) have been issued final orders of removal by an immigration court, and (iii) have exhausted appropriate legal remedies, and have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws.”

Johnson stressed that the United States “must enforce the law in accordance with these priorities, and secure our borders.” The number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol of those attempting to  cross the southern border illegally decreased to 331,333 in fiscal 2015, he added. “With the exception of one year, this was the lowest number of apprehensions on our southern border since 1972, he said. “In recent months, however, the rate of apprehensions on our southern border has begun to climb again.”

Since the summer of 2014, DHS has removed and repatriated migrants (mostly single adults) to Central America at an increased rate, averaging about 14 flights a week, DHS said. “Given the sensitive nature of taking into custody and removing families with children, a number of precautions were taken as part of this weekend’s operations,” the agency stated.  “ICE deployed from around the country a number of female agents and medical personnel to take part in the operations, and, in the course of the operations, ICE exercised prosecutorial discretion in a number of cases for health or other personal reasons.”

This enforcement action was overseen by Sarah Saldaña, director of ICE, and supported and executed by Thomas Homan, head of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations.

Touting the long-term achievements of U.S. policy on southern border crossings, Johnson said DHS continues to work with state and local law enforcement as well as Central American governments to stem the flow and highlight a legal alternative to illegal crossings.

“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,” he 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. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity.”

Immigrants’ advocacy groups had been dreading the development. A blogger for the group America’s Voice on Dec. 24 called the coming raids “an extremely disturbing development – a plan that would deport young mothers and their children to places where rape, sexual abuse and murder are commonplace.”

America’s Voice founder Frank Sharry said, “This will be a political nightmare for the Democrats. The specter of raids picking up families and sending them back to violent countries is going to put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She’ll have to choose between protecting refugees from Central America, a demand of the Latino community, or standing with the law-and-order position of Obama and Republicans.”

Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, called the raids a “scare tactic” that Johnson is using to deport as many people as quickly as possible. “The administration is doubling down on a system that is rigged against these families. Many of these mothers and children had no lawyers because they could not afford them,” she said. “Without counsel, traumatized refugees don't understand what is happening in court and cannot get their legitimate asylum claims heard."

But Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program, told Government Executive that the final version announced by Johnson “appears consistent with DHS enforcement priorities to the extent that it is focused on people who’ve exhausted their appeals. That would address some of the human rights concerns,” he said. “But human rights and immigration advocates would say there is still a question about the due process that families are subjected to in the first place.”

Many go through the process without legal counsel, Rosenblum noted. “So to a fair extent the current system supports that, but plenty of people will see it as not offering adequate protection to vulnerable populations.”

The largest U.S. Spanish newspaper, La Opinion, complained that mothers and children are now viewed by ICE as the same priority as drug traffickers. “The main motivation for the operative at this moment is to discourage a new wave of migrants coming in from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who risk their lives crossing through Mexico to reach the U.S,” it editorialized. “Dissuasion methods like this do not work, especially in this particular case, as this migration is not primarily economic but resembles more that of refugees escaping in order to survive.”

To top it off,” La Opinion continued, “we are forced to listen to Donald Trump’s cackling, taking credit for this action citing his odious criticism of immigration. It is possible to imagine that the priority of a government led by this millionaire would be to deport mothers and children, but it is unacceptable to see it happening now. These raids must be suspended immediately!”

All three Democratic presidential candidates last week expressed reservations about the reported plan.

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