A tip-off that federal immigration officials reportedly plan to carry out mass deportation raids as early as next month has sent advocacy groups scrambling to thwart any action before it happens.
Amid concern that the holiday season doldrums could lead to low public engagement, immigrant allies are rushing to prepare for potential raids and shield those who could be targeted, while simultaneously ginning up pressure that could force the Obama administration to abandon the plan entirely.
“These anticipated raids are not a done deal and we are hoping that as people of faith and immigrants and citizens, we can demonstrate to Obama that this is not the legacy that he wants to leave,” said Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
News of the potential raids, first reported by the Washington Post, came as a shock to the immigrant community just before families began gathering last week to celebrate Christmas Eve. According to the Post, enforcement officials plan to carry out nationwide raids starting as early as January in an operation to sweep up and deport hundreds of undocumented adults and children -- and potentially many more.
Undocumented immigrants have long feared such raids, which have swarmed homes and workplaces, broken apart families and disrupted entire communities. Compounding those fears is the shock that the central targets for the proposed deportation raids are families and children, many of whom fled violent conditions in Central America.
The current dynamic is borne out of the massive humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, when a flood of unaccompanied minor children and families from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador maxed-out federal resources. More than 100,000 families have been swept up at the U.S. border since then. And though advocates say the vast majority of those migrants have legitimate claims to seek asylum in the U.S., according to the Post, those who either failed to meet the legal standard or didn’t show up to their hearing before an immigration judge are subject to deportation.
Critics argue the raids prey on the most vulnerable of all undocumented immigrants and that the system does not afford asylum-seekers adequate due process rights.
“The administration continues to believe -- incorrectly -- that deterrence by deportation is a winning strategy,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “The evidence shows that when people are fleeing violence, deportation does not deter someone from seeking refuge.”
Notably, the potential raids have not been formalized by the Department of Homeland Security, giving immigrant allies a small window to act.
A spokesperson for the agency would not confirm the plan but said in a statement last week that "if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our ideas and our values."
The reports come amid a toxic political climate around immigration that is playing out in the presidential race, and heightened concern over federal policies in accepting asylum-seekers and refugees, primarily from Syria. Meanwhile, the number of Central American families and children caught along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged in recent months, hinting that the underlying problems driving people out of their homes remain unresolved. Further compounding the issue, the administration has been blocked by federal courts from expanding its family detention practices and has been left with limited tools to deter more families from making the dangerous journey north.
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said he suspects that the leak, given to the Post by a single unnamed federal official, is merely a test to see how the public would react to rumors that the government would deport families and children. He said he hopes the news is an early warning to give advocates and the immigrant community a rare opportunity to prepare.
Groups are planning nonetheless.
“My fear is that we’ll have a third class of individuals who are attempting to survive in the deepest corners of the shadow system that is a result of our broken immigration system,” said Cabrera.
Faith leaders nationwide have pledged to take advantage of a loophole in immigration laws that bar federal agents from raiding places of worship in order to deport undocumented immigrants.
Pastor Alison Harrington, who leads the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., said faith leaders are in the process of coordinating to see where churches are willing to open their doors and provide safe haven to families that could be potential targets.
“When the kids were starting to come across the border, we were getting tons of calls and we had to say, 'it’s not time to offer sanctuary to families yet, but get your congregations ready,'” Harrington said. “Well, the time is now. The thing that you’ve been planning for and praying for, the time is now.”