Immigration agents over the weekend began conducting raids targeting the removal of Central American families as well as unaccompanied children who crossed over the US southern border without documentation over the past two years. The raids, seen as an effort to deter future undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, are targeting individuals who have entered the US since May 2014, have been issued final orders of removal by an immigration court, have exhausted appropriate legal remedies, and have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief, according to a statement by Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security.
In the statement, Johnson said that the 121 people rounded up this past weekend during raids in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina were transferred to family detention centers mainly in Texas to await removal. Johnson said the raids “should come as no surprise” and noted that he has said “publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
Although these latest actions affect only a small part of the more than 100,000 Central American family members, mostly mothers with children, who crossed into the US since 2014, the raids have been strongly condemned by many. Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), told the AP the group was "shocked and outraged" to hear of the raids targeting "women and children who are extremely vulnerable and by and large have fled from horrendous violence in their home countries."
The immigration surge in the past two years has been linked to a rise in gang-related violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as well as extreme poverty in the region, while some immigrants crossed the border to reunite with family members in the US or to claim asylum.
One family caught up in the immigration raids was Maria Hernandez and her two sons, who fled gang violence in El Salvador in 2014. They were asleep early Saturday morning in her parents' Dallas home when immigration agents banged on the door. "They entered all the rooms and woke up my kids, saying they had a deportation order," Hernandez told VICE News in Spanish. "We were very surprised—I was almost naked when they entered. We were all crying."
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, from where they will be deported to El Salvador. "They told us that in two days they'll send us to our country," Hernandez said Monday in a phone interview with Vice News from the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. "It's the worst thing that could happen. We all have threats on our lives."
A Guardian investigation last year into the consequences of Obama’s deportation policies revealed many US deportees have been murdered shortly after returning to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with a study saying as many as eighty-three returning deportees have been killed since 2014.
Guatemala's Vice Minister Oscar Padilla said that starting Monday “consulates would be interviewing and reviewing the cases of citizens on deportation lists to ensure that each has an order signed by a judge.” The foreign ministry also advised Guatemalans in the US that they “need not open their doors to immigration agents unless the officers have a warrant signed by a judge, and that they carry with them at all times phone numbers of family members, a lawyer and the nearest consulate.”
Immigration activist groups have also begun alerting undocumented immigrants of the impending raids and informing them of their rights through videos, social media, and email and phone blasts. Advocates are noting that immigrants have the right to deny ICE officials entry; immigration agents must have an order signed by a judge to enter a house. “To be on the safe side, just don’t answer the door,” Bryan Johnson, a New York-based immigration lawyer, told the LA Times. “The problem is if you open the door, then it’s he said, she said. But if you never open the door, there’s proof—they have to break it down.”