WASHINGTON - Immigration officials are preparing a nationwide push in January to apprehend and deport Central American families who arrived in recent years and have been ordered by immigration judges to leave, according to officials familiar with the plan.
The stepped-up effort will target hundreds of families who decided to follow often-dangerous smuggling routes into the U.S., fleeing escalating violence and harsh economic conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but whose requests for asylum have been denied.
Agents are not planning to return to workplace raids or other dragnet-style tactics that can lead to the indiscriminate deportation of people in the country illegally, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans that have not been approved.
More than 100,000 families from Central America have crossed illegally into the U.S. since last year. Some have won permission to stay, but many have cases that are pending.
The deportation effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removal officers would target Central American migrants who have arrived in the U.S. recently, whose requests for asylum have been denied, and who have received a "final order of removal" since Jan. 1, 2014, the officials said. The effort was first reported in the Washington Post.
The push is intended to send a signal to people thinking of making the treacherous journey to the U.S. that they won't be able to stay if caught.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has repeatedly said that those who came to the country illegally and didn't meet requirements for protection would be deported. But there have been few public signs that officials were willing to follow through.
Officials fear that current policies have done little to deter Central American migrants.
Court decisions over poor conditions for families in immigration detention facilities have limited the number of Central Americans with children who are kept in custody after being apprehended by border officials. Thousands of people have been released into the U.S. with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
Over the last two years, immigration officials have boosted the number of detention beds for families, but the facilities have been criticized as too harsh for children and are overtaxed.
"As secretary Johnson has consistently said, our 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," Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement.
The reported plans drew criticism from immigrant-rights groups, who say that immigration court proceedings that lead to deportation orders are often flawed.
Democratic presidential candidates also weighed in.
Hillary Clinton "has real concerns about these reports, especially as families are coming together during this holiday season," Clinton spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley called the administration's deportations "mindless." And Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was "very disturbed" by the reports.