Immigration officials are preparing a nationwide push in January to find and deport Central American families who arrived in recent years and have been ordered by immigration judges to leave, according to officials familiar with the plan.
The new push is intended to send a signal to people thinking of making the treacherous journey to the U.S. from Central America that they won't be able to stay if caught, officials say.
The stepped-up effort will target hundreds of families who decided to follow often-dangerous smuggling routes into the U.S., fleeing escalating violence and harsh economic conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but whose requests for asylum have been denied.
Though some families are being held in federal detention centers, many have been released to live with relatives or friends while their cases are considered in court.
Agents are not planning to return to workplace raids or other dragnet-style tactics that can lead to the indiscriminate deportation of people in the country illegally, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans that have not been approved.
Instead, they plan to target known addresses for families who have deportation orders.
More than 100,000 families from Central America have crossed illegally into the U.S. since last year. Some have won permission to stay, but many have cases that are pending. Only those whose cases have been completed and who have received a so-called "final order of removal" since Jan. 1, 2014, will be subject to deportation, officials said.
The effort was first reported in the Washington Post.
Immigration advocates denounced the plan, saying it will send thousands of people back to violent, dangerous communities in Central America where some will be killed, raped or beaten. Immigration proceedings in which migrants' asylum claims have been turned down do not provide a fair hearing, they argue.
Administration officials admit that many Central American countries face serious problems with crime and violence, but note that migrants who can demonstrate a legitimate fear of persecution do receive asylum under U.S. law.
A willingness to enforce final deportation orders when asylum claims are rejected is a necessary part of the immigration system unless the U.S. is prepared to admit virtually anyone who arrives at the border, they say.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has repeatedly said that those who came to the country illegally and didn't meet requirements for protection would be deported. But there have been few public signs that officials were actually willing to follow through.
Officials fear that current policies have done little to deter Central American migrants, who illegally entered the U.S. in record numbers last year. To the contrary, officials say, judicial orders to release many migrant families from detention have fed a perception in Central America that anyone who does reach the U.S. will be able to stay.
Court decisions over poor conditions for families in immigration detention facilities in New Mexico, Texas and Pennsylvania have limited the number of Central American parents with children who are kept in custody after being apprehended by border officials. Thousands of people have been released into the U.S. with a notice to appear later before an immigration judge.
Over the last two years, immigration officials have boosted the number of detention beds for families, but the facilities have been criticized as too harsh for children and are overtaxed.
"As secretary Johnson has consistently said, our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values," Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement.
She would not comment on plans for future law enforcement operations.
Michelle Brané, an advocate for immigrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission, said many refugees fleeing violence in Central America are not given enough information about how to describe why they left home and qualify for protection in the U.S.
"It is outrageous that the administration plans to conduct raids on families who have fled persecution and violence," Brané said in a statement Thursday.
"Instead of focusing on deporting families, the administration should finally recognize what this influx is about: refugees seeking protection at our border who, instead of being locked up, should be given a real chance to find a lawyer, understand how the process works, and make their case for asylum before a judge," Brané said.
The push to increase the pace of deportations comes in the middle of a heated election cycle that has seen immigration become a flashpoint on the campaign trail. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for deporting all 11 million people in the country illegally.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said he was "very disturbed" by reports that stepped-up deportations are being planned.
"As we spend time with our families this holiday season, we who are parents should ask ourselves what we would do if our children faced the danger and violence these children do," he said in a statement.
"Our nation has always been a beacon of hope, a refuge for the oppressed. We cannot turn our backs on that essential element of who we are as a nation. We need to take steps to protect children and families seeking refuge here, not cast them out."