Federal immigration authorities are planning a nationwide sweep of undocumented immigrants and families who are still in the United States even after being ordered by a judge to return home, according to U.S. officials.
The move -- expected to begin next month if top administration officials give final approval -- comes in response to a recent uptick in illegal border crossings, the officials said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are focusing their efforts “on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” including individuals and their families “who have received a final order of removal on or after January 1, 2014,” a Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement.
“[O]ur border is not open to illegal immigration, and 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 laws and our values,” the statement said.
A former top ICE official described the latest move as “a deviation” from previous policies under the Obama administration, which has heavily focused on deporting convicted criminals and others who pose a threat to the public. However, with “increasing numbers at the border," DHS and White House officials are “in a real tough spot,” said John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE under the Obama administration.
As Sandweg sees it, the administration is now trying to “slow down the numbers” by sending a clear message to Central Americans: “Don’t come.”
“If they can get images on TV in Central America [of] families being taken off planes ... it's going to deter people from coming,” Sandweg told ABC News' Pierre Thomas. At the same time, the people being deported are “people who frankly are fleeing poverty, are fleeing violence ... are just trying to find a better life for their family,” so ”grabbing those people in their homes is obviously a difficult choice” for the administration, Sandweg said.
Many, meanwhile, were quick to condemn the DHS move.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association said that if DHS were to move forward with such plans, the government would be going after “perhaps the most vulnerable population,” comprised of mothers and children who came to the United States looking to escape environments filled with domestic abuse, rape and even murder.
AILA’s director of advocacy, Greg Chen, acknowledged that “the government has legal authority” to deport people from the country who have been ordered removed by a judge. But Chen said his organization is “extremely concerned that the use of aggressive tactics ... to round up large numbers of people is going to instill fear in the community and further traumatize a population that is already traumatized.”
In addition, within hours of news reports describing the plans, all three major presidential candidates running for the Democratic ticket took aim at DHS.
“[P]lans for raids to round up/deport Central American refugees fleeing death are wrong,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley Tweeted. “We are a better nation than this.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was “very disturbed” by the reports, insisting, “We must take steps to protect children and families seeking refuge here, not cast them out.”
A spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton said the former secretary of state "has real concerns about these reports," insisting "it is critical that everyone has a full and fair hearing, and that our country provides refuge to those that need it."
In November 2014, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced new guidelines for federal immigration enforcement, noting that due to “limited resources,” DHS and its components “cannot respond to all immigration violations or remove all persons illegally in the United States.”
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently inside the United States.
“As is true of virtually every other law enforcement agency, DHS must exercise prosecutorial discretion in the enforcement of the law,” Johnson said in a memo at the time. “[I]n the exercise of that discretion, DHS can and should develop smart enforcement priorities, and ensure that use of its limited resources is devoted to the pursuit of those priorities.”
The U.S. officials said the coming sweep is in accordance with those priorities, and they emphasized that those being targeted have been afforded due process and were ultimately ordered to return home by a federal judge. Nevertheless, the move has been met with some internal objections or concerns, according to one official.
The DHS plans were first reported by The Washington Post.
Earlier this week, DHS released its latest statistics related to immigration enforcement, showing fewer apprehensions at U.S. borders and fewer deportations than the year before.
Over the past year, ICE removed or returned 235,413 people -- 98 percent of whom fell into one or more of ICE’s enforcement priorities, according to DHS. A year earlier, ICE removed or returned 315,943 people.