Immigration agents rounded up more than a hundred adults and their children in deportation raids over the weekend, launching a sweeping crackdown against the families that fled extreme conditions in Central America and were caught along the U.S. border.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed in a statement on Monday that a total of 121 people were taken into custody after immigration agents stormed homes across primarily Georgia, Texas and North Carolina in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The coordinated operation focused on families at the center of the humanitarian crisis at the border last summer. Those targeted in the raids had been issued final orders of deportation and had no loose ends on appeals for asylum or humanitarian relief, Johnson said. Families are now being processed and issued travel documents for return flights to their home countries. But those flights back to Central America will not likely be the last.
"This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed," he said in a statement. He later added: "At my direction, additional enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate."
Among the youngest arrested was a 4-year-old living in Georgia, said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, who is working the cases of five families arrested in the Atlanta area. Others were as young as 7 and 9, she added, and they were taken to a family detention center in South Texas where their cases could be finalized and processed.
"In many cases, the children were screaming and yelling [at being] woken up by a police officer or ICE officer in their homes in the morning," she said. "We were really concerned about the accommodations for these very tiny children that were taken from their houses or their family members."
The immigrant community was given a rare advanced warning that plans for the raids were in the works. Early reports, first published by The Washington Post, hinted that deportation sweeps could come as early as the start of the new year. The flood had died down of unaccompanied minors and families fleeing extreme conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but a spike in attempted illegal crossings at the border in recent months put the administration on the offensive in deterring more families from making the journey north.
Many advocates were surprised to see women and children as priorities for deportation, let alone the intended targets for home raids. More than 100,000 people from Central America have been caught along the southern border since the humanitarian crisis at the border during the summer of 2014. And of the thousands placed inside the two immigrant family detention centers in South Texas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found that nearly 90% of people were eligible to seek some degree of humanitarian relief.
“The U.S. is refusing to have a human response to a refugee crisis,” said Carolina Canizales, national deportation defense coordinator for United We Dream. Renewed attention on deportation raids has the broader immigrant community on edge, remembering the days during George W. Bush's presidency and early into the Obama administration when workplace raids were commonplace and broke up families. Canizales said the advocacy group's hotline number had been ringing off the hook over the weekend with callers who said they were either targets in the raids or they were fearful of agents coming to their home.
"What that shows us it that ICE continues to terrorize our community on a daily basis," she said.
Aware that the deportation raids do not sit well with pro-immigrant groups, DHS officials have said they are working to expand the process for Central Americans to apply for refugee status from their home countries.
"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. I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause," Johnson said in the statement Monday. "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."