While President-elect Donald Trump was renewing his campaign vows over the weekend to build a border wall and deport up to 3 million people, U.S. immigration officials were taking steps to deal with thousands of Central American children and families arriving in Texas.
Speaking to CBS’ “60 Minutes” news show on Sunday in his first interview since the election, Trump said his administration would prioritize going after undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Trump said. “But we’re getting them out of our country. They’re here illegally.”
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.; fact-checkers say Trump’s claim that at least 2 million of them are serious criminals is based on “very bad math.” Last year, for instance, Immigration and Customs Enforcement identified 64,197 crimes committed by fewer than 20,000 “criminal aliens placed in a noncustodial setting.” Nearly a third of those offenses were traffic violations.
“If he’s deporting criminal aliens, I don’t think anyone will object to that,” said Anna Law, a professor of constitutional law and civil liberties at CUNY Brooklyn College. “But I’m concerned that to make the 2 to 3 million count, he’s going to scoop up a lot of undocumented people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
She added, “Anyone who has a criminal conviction, even something as minor as a traffic violation, jumping a subway turnstile, or a DUI might want to start looking for a lawyer now.”
As for the rest of America’s undocumented population, Trump said his administration would make a “determination” about the future of these “terrific people” after the U.S.-Mexico border is deemed sufficiently secure. Trump reiterated that he intends to erect a massive wall in some places, but said for the first time that he’s open to extending the fence that already exists along nearly 700 miles of the border.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced plans on Saturday to deploy 150 additional agents to Texas in response to a surge of Central American migrants arriving at the border. Johnson said 46,195 people were detained at the southwest border in October, up from 39,501 in September and 37,048 in August. Overall this year through September, 408,870 people have been apprehended along the southwest border, a 23 percent increase from the same period last year.
Immigration officials have said most of the people caught in the recent influx are families and unaccompanied minors. According to advocates working on the ground in Central America, these are mainly refugees fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
“They have gangs demanding extortion and threatening them during the day, and security forces breaking doors down and rounding up young men at night,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Foundation Cristosal, a human rights group in El Salvador. “They feel like it’s coming at them from both sides.”
President Obama has been forced to deal with the issue of Central American asylum seekers repeatedly during his tenure, and he has faced criticism from advocates for holding migrant families in detention facilities and pressuring Mexico to better police its Southern border in order to make it harder for migrants to reach the U.S.
Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that if Trump takes an even more hardline approach without addressing the violence and economic conditions causing displacement in Central America, it will do nothing to help the situation.
“If you have people who are willing to cross the U.S. border and the desert at the risk of dying, the thought of trying to deter people doesn’t really fit with reality,” Meyer said. “That’s the part you can’t factor into any enforcement policy: the lengths people are willing to go to protect themselves, and the extent to which people will go to be with their loved ones.”
Obama deported a record 1.5 million people in his first term, and more than 2.6 million total during his tenure in office, so Trump’s stated deportation goal appears to be within reach. But Law and others warned that Trump will have to respect the legal process and allow Central Americans and others with asylum claims to have their day in court.
“The thought that he’s going to remove a million people on the first day is a nonstarter,” Law said. “These people have due process rights, even as undocumented immigrants. They have the right to appeal, and you’ve seen how backlogged the system is as it is.”
As Law noted, U.S. immigration courts are currently facing a “crushing backlog” of more than half a million cases, leading to average wait times of more than 1,000 days just to see a judge in some states. She warned that without additional resources, Trump’s quest to keep his campaign promises could overwhelm the system even further.
“That system has been gummed up for years,” Law said. “If he intends to deport even 1 million people, that system will freaking collapse under current conditions.”