Maria Hernandez and her two sons were asleep early Saturday morning in her parents' Dallas home when several immigration agents banged on the door. Her father opened it, confused, and the agents burst inside.
"They entered all the rooms and woke up my kids, saying they had a deportation order," Hernandez, 33, told VICE News in Spanish. "We were very surprised — I was almost naked when they entered. We were all crying."
As her dad stood weeping, the agents took Hernandez and her six- and nine-year-old sons into custody and drove them first to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and then to a detention center in South Texas. This week officials will fly the family back to El Salvador, from which they fled gang violence in May 2014.
"They told us that in two days they'll send us to our country," Hernandez said Monday in a phone interview from the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. "It's the worst thing that could happen. We all have threats on our lives."
The Hernandezes are among 121 Central American facing imminent deportation, after ICE rounded them up this weekend in a national enforcement action — the first of its kind to target minors. Officials apprehended women and children who had crossed the border since May 2014 and who were denied asylum, according to an ICE spokesperson.
The raids are a response to the continued increase of Central American border crossings in recent months and are intended to combat the surge and to enforce immigration law, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson explained in a press statement.
"As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," Johnson said. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."
Johnson declared that recent border crossers who have entered the US illegally since May 2014 are an enforcement priority, along with convicted criminals and threats to public safety.
"Attempting to enter the US unlawfully as a family unit does not protect individuals from being subject to the immigration laws of this country," said an unnamed DHS official on background. "The repatriation of individuals with final orders of removal — including families and unaccompanied minors — to their home countries is part of our broader ongoing effort to address the recent surge of families and individuals arriving at our southern border."
The raids are designed as a deterrent to discourage more Central American border crossers, immigration analysts told VICE News, along the lines of DHS's use of family immigrant detention. DHS instituted large-scale family detention in the summer of 2014 in reaction to the Central American influx, and initially held women and children for months as they awaited a resolution to their asylum cases. But this summer a federal judge declared that families could be held legally for only 20 days.
"In the same way that the [Obama] administration was detaining families to deter them, this is an effort to deport to deter," said Royce Murray, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. "If they feel their detention efforts aren't serving as a deterrent, they need to prove to people they will face real consequences if they come."
But Murray and other analysts said that the strategy is ineffective because the families fled life-threatening situations in their home countries.
"There is a failure to recognize that this is a refugee flow," Murray said.
Many of the families have had no access to a lawyer in their asylum proceedings, so they might have failed to accurately present their cases while actually qualifying for asylum, she added.
Activists also suggested that the highly publicized raids also serve a political purpose, to show that the Obama administration is acting tough on immigration leading up to the presidential election.
"It appears to me that the timing is political and tied to coming into an election year and trying to counter the political rhetoric on immigration," said attorney Karen Grisez, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who has worked on immigrant detention issues. Grisez said that the sudden action followed heated criticism of Democrats by Republicans for being too lax on immigration.
The raids also came as the Obama administration prepares to fight for its immigration reform efforts in the Supreme Court. In 2014, Obama issued deportation relief for longtime undocumented residents who entered the US as minors or whose children are US citizens, but several states sued to block his executive action. Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute's US immigration program, said it helped the administration's case to show strict immigration enforcement.
"With the Supreme Court poised to take up the case, the administration's argument about focusing on deportation priorities rings more true if they are really focusing on their priorities," Rosenblum said, noting that the recently arrived families were "a named priority."
"There are political costs on the right to not going after people who have been ordered deported," he noted.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment, but a spokesperson told reporters that the raids had no political motive.
"I can assure you that politics did not factor in these kind of enforcement decisions," the spokesperson said. "Ultimately, when it comes to enforcement issued, those are decisions that are made by law enforcement professionals."