The Trump administration has tried a number of initiatives to deter Central American families from coming to the U.S.: separating parents from children, banning people who enter the country illegally from claiming asylum, limiting the number of legal asylum seekers who can enter the country.
Now, Trump appears to be focusing on a tactic that could withstand legal challenges: mass raids to round up thousands of migrant parents and children and put them on a fast track for deportation if they miss a court hearing.
The Washington Post reported Monday that former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top immigration enforcement official Ronald Vitiello were forced out in part because they opposed a blitz of raids in major U.S. cities that would have also included fast-track deportations of people who missed a court hearing. While the plan has been tabled for the time being, it remains under consideration.
“We have seen this administration target specific locations for raids in the past, or specific populations, but what we haven’t seen is any plan for an operation this big,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council.
And yet fast-tracking of deportations is already happening. Thousands of newly arrived migrant families living in major U.S. cities are being targeted for deportation under a new Justice Department immigration docket that seeks to get around a years-long immigration court backlog.
That docket currently received 40,000 cases from September 24, 2018 through April 26, 2019 for 10 major U.S. cities. Of the 8,000 cases that have been completed, more than 6,700 parents and children have been ordered deported “in absentia” because they missed a court hearing. Most of the affected families are in New York, Miami, Houston and Atlanta.
The Department of Justice confirmed that data, and noted that it has been prioritizing processing of migrant families since November.
“Asylum adjudications are taking years when they really should occur within a month”
Trump has railed against asylum seekers, saying they skip their court hearings and then stay in the country. But the “in abstentia” rates don’t take into account the full range of court hearings. The Justice Department’s own data shows that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers showed up to their court hearings.
“The administration has identified a legitimate problem — asylum adjudications are taking years when they really should occur within a month,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in D.C. “But their answer to that problem, speeding court cases, is just resulting in mass deportation orders.”
Pierce said the administration could take other steps to cut down on the asylum process, including better case management or having asylum officers make final decisions.
The last time there were coordinated mass raids of migrant families happened under Obama in January 2016, when ICE targeted recently-arrived Central American families in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. That plan stirred dissent within Obama’s administration and fierce criticism from immigration-rights advocates.
Its effectiveness was also unclear, as many of the families picked up in the raids were able to reopen their cases and avoid deportation.
“There is nothing inherently illegal about trying to arrest and deport people with final orders”
But whether the raids actually result in deportations may be less important to the Trump administration than the optics of arresting so many migrant families, with the hope that it will deter other Central American families from coming.
“There is nothing inherently illegal about trying to arrest and deport people with final orders — it’s just operationally difficult,” said Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women's Refugee Commission. “It means deprioritizing something else. They have been swinging blindly wherever they’ve seen an opportunity.”
The plan was reportedly championed by White House adviser Stephen Miller and ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence.
Nielsen and Vitiello challenged the plan on logistical grounds as opposed to moral concerns, according to the Post. Among their concerns were lack of bed space to keep families in detention, what would happen to families with U.S. citizen children, and the possibility of family separations if parents were picked up while their children were at school.
Some immigration-rights advocates said they’re skeptical about what actually happened behind the scenes that led to the purge at the Department of Homeland Security in April.
“We should be careful about what appears to be an emerging narrative that the mass DHS firings of recent weeks, and supposed motives behind it, somehow absolve those fired by Stephen Miller from their roles in implementing the family separation policies,” Carlos Guevara, immigration policy advisor at UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy group, said in a statement.
“We continue to call on Congress to get answers to the circumstances surrounding those decisions,” he said.
Cover: In this Oct. 22, 2018 photo, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surround and detain a person during a raid in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)