DHS begins immigration raids & family deportations
Federal agents conducted a series of immigration raids in at least six states over the holiday weekend, targeting immigrant families and children as part of a larger attempt to blunt the influx of Central Americans fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The possibility of the raids was uncovered by the Washington Post two days before Christmas, but immigration officials waited until the new year to begin the raids.
Agents arrested at least 121 people, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday.
"This past weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) engaged in concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children," Johnson said.
"This should come as no surprise," he said in a news release. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
Johnson said the agency was targeting adults and children apprehended by Customs and Border Protection agents and officers after May 1, 2014 and had exhausted their appeals following an order of removal from an immigration court.
Johnson said that in a number of cases, ICE "exercised prosecutorial discretion" and did not arrest some people because of "health of other personal reasons."
Those arrested will be taken to family detention centers for processing, and then they will be deported. Those from Central America will be flown on chartered flights back to their home countries. Johnson said that since the summer of 2014, an average of 14 flights a week was carrying immigrants back to their home countries for repatriation.
The agency did not conduct raids in Arizona, said an official with ICE, however it's possible that the agency could conduct arrests of Central American, as well as Mexican families in similar circumstances, at any time in the future.
The official also said that in Arizona and other states, the agency continues to conduct regular "enforcement operations" that includes arrests and removals of immigrants.
The raids followed a spike this fall in the number of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors coming into the United States.
From October 1 to November 30 this year, more than 12,500 people in family groups, and nearly 10,600 unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, according to numbers collected from CBP.
In Tucson Sector alone, the number of families caught along the U.S.-Mexico border has increased nearly 97 percent in October and November.
This is far below the numbers from 2014, when thousands came into the United States, requiring a response from several federal agencies, including DHS as well as Health and Human Services and federal emergency management personnel.
While much of the focus was on the initial surge of 68,451 unaccompanied minors, with many coming through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, there was also a surge in the number of families from Central America.
Overall, more than 108,000 people in families groups have crossed into the United States since the beginning of the fiscal year 2014, according to CBP.
In response, the administration worked with the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to deter immigrants from coming to the United States, and the numbers "declined dramatically," Johnson said.
The feds plan to continue to expand a messaging campaign to convince families to stay in their home countries, illustrating the "dangerous realities of the journey" while "highlighting the recent enforcement operations," Johnson said.
Johnson also highlighted two efforts to keep Central Americans at home, including $750 million in aid as part of a congressional spending bill, and a buildup of the Central American Minors Program, which will allow in-country processing of potential refugees.
However, while more than 6,000 children and their parents had applied to the program, only about 90 applicants had been interviewed by last September.
Advocacy groups hammered the administration for the raids.
The American Immigration Council said the raids were proof that the White House failed to understand that many Central American families should be given "humanitarian protection rather than punishment."
"We must stop treating these families as though they are criminals," the group said said. "It is not a crime to arrive at our borders and request protection, and the overwhelming evidence indicates that these families have legitimate claims under U.S. law."
"These raids are a scare tactic to deter other families fleeing violence in Central America from coming to the United States," said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
"Secretary Johnson has himself admitted the raids are designed to deport as many as possible, as quickly as possible," said Wang, calling the system "rigged against" immigrant families. "Many of these mothers and children had no lawyers because they could not afford them. Without counsel, traumatized refugees don't understand what is happening in court and cannot get their legitimate asylum claims heard."
Information gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University, bears this out.
Families facing deportation are 14 times as likely to win their case and be allowed to stay in the United States if they have access to legal counsel after passing initial "credible fear" screenings, TRAC found. TRAC said that
And, recent figures from the asylum division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that from July 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015, nearly 79 percent of the mothers and children detained in three detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas were able to prove that they were eligible for asylum or other humanitarian relief.
Johnson said the he recognized the pain that deportations cause, but added that officials "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."