The “family op,” as it is referred to at ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, is slated to target up to 2,000 families facing deportation orders in as many as 10 U.S. cities, including Houston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and other major immigration destinations, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the law enforcement operation.
Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan has been urging ICE to conduct a narrower, more-targeted operation that would seek to detain a group of about 150 families that were provided with attorneys but dropped out of the legal process and absconded.
McAleenan has warned that an indiscriminate operation to arrest migrants in their homes and at work sites risks separating children from their parents in cases where the children are at day care, summer camp or friend’s houses and not present for the raids. He also has maintained that ICE should not devote major resources to carrying out a mass interior sweep while telling lawmakers it needs emergency funding to address the crisis at the U.S. border.
Trump has been determined to go forward with the family operation after tweeting Monday that the immigration raids were coming “next week” as a first step toward his pledge for “millions” of deportations. The White House has been in direct communication with acting ICE director Mark Morgan and other ICE officials, circumventing McAleenan, three officials said.
DHS and White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
ICE has been preparing agents and equipment for the operation, which is expected to unfold across several days starting Sunday morning, the officials said. Discussions about the scope of the operation continued Friday at ICE, DHS and the White House, two officials said.
The agency is planning to use hotel rooms as temporary staging areas to detain parents and children until all the members of a family are together and ready for deportation. Officials also acknowledge that they might arrest individuals they cannot immediately deport — known as “collateral arrests” — and likely will release those people with ankle monitoring devices.
Morgan, deputy ICE director Matt Albence and others are eager to begin the operation despite the risk of a public backlash against an agency after calls to “Abolish ICE” intensified in the wake of the administration’s failed “Zero Tolerance” crackdown last year that separated more than 2,700 children from their parents.
ICE agents have limited intelligence on the locations of the families with court-ordered deportations beyond their last known addresses. But White House and ICE officials believe agents will be able to make many “collateral arrests” by vacuuming up foreigners living in the country illegally at or near the target locations.
Large-scale immigration enforcement operations are typically kept secret to avoid tipping off targets, but Trump’s tweet Monday blew the cover off the roundup in advance. That the operation was revealed publicly stunned law enforcement officials, and they believe it gave them more latitude to discuss the raids.
Some within DHS and ICE say the president appears to be using the operation for political purposes as he begins his reelection bid. Law enforcement officials worry that by publicly discussing the plan, Trump has undermined the chances of capturing those on the target list, as it likely pushed migrants with deportation orders underground.
But others say the president’s advance warning was welcome because of the public distrust generated by “Zero Tolerance.”
“‘Zero Tolerance’ was not telegraphed and didn’t come out very well, so now the idea is to make sure everyone knows what’s coming,” said one senior administration official. “The thinking is ‘Let’s do this a different way, by explaining that these are people with final removal orders who have refused to go.’”
Morgan and others at ICE insist the operation is crucial to uphold the integrity of the U.S. immigration system. There are nearly one million immigrants living in the United States who have been issued deportation orders, they say, and ICE is averaging about 7,000 deportations from the U.S. interior each month.
According to DHS statistics, fewer than two percent of the families who arrived from Central America in 2017 have been deported.
“In February, we sent letters to these individuals telling them they had an order of removal,” Morgan told reporters this week. “We’re at the point right now where we have no other choice but to use our interior enforcement statutory authority to identify where these individuals are and remove them.”
Families cannot be exempted, he said: “The law must be applied fairly and equally. We’re going to do that with compassion and dignity, but we’re going to enforce the law.”
The expedited family court docket, or “rocket docket,” was developed by Trump officials late last year in an effort to deport more migrant families with the belief that a highly visible roundup operation could have a deterrent effect on others in Central America considering the journey.
The Department of Justice fast-tracked the cases of thousands of families in major cities, obtaining “in absentia” deportation orders for thousands of families that did not show up for their court hearings.
The plan to carry out those deportations has been stalled, however, over concern that it will enrage Democrats and sink whatever chances remain for achieving a bipartisan deal to close the gap in the dysfunctional U.S. asylum system.
Trump ousted former ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello and then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in April when they challenged the “family op” plan, urging more deliberation.
Nielsen was replaced by McAleenan, who has made significant inroads with leading Democrats, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) toward the request for $4.6 billion in supplemental aid to address the humanitarian crisis at the border. Most of that funding would pay to care for unaccompanied children who arrive at the U.S. border without a parent.
Democratic senators indicated a willingness to work with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on proposals to fix the asylum process. On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 30 to 1 to approve the supplemental funding in a rare example of bipartisan cooperation on immigration. The White House has been warned that a large-scale “family op” along the lines the president wants could scuttle the deal.
McAleenan has argued that the crisis at the border — where 144,000 were taken into custody last month — remains the most urgent problem for DHS. Following Trump’s threats to slap tariffs on Mexico, he led negotiations with Mexican officials that resulted in commitments to dramatically toughen enforcement and begin work on a regional asylum overhaul that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers back to Central America.
Officials say McAleenan does not oppose ICE interior enforcement against families with deportation orders, but he wants a more phased, limited approach that averts a repeat of “Zero Tolerance.”
Morgan this week urged families with deportation orders to turn themselves in to ICE, and said that operations targeting those who defy court orders would reinforce the administration’s broader deterrent efforts.
“The message has gotten out that if you bring a kid, nothing will ever happen to you,” Morgan said. “We need to make sure we’re sending the message that will not be tolerated any more.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.