The detentions of at least 11 families across the country marked the first day of an effort by the government to find and deport Central American migrants who sought refuge in the U.S. and stayed illegally, immigrant advocates said Saturday.
Unlike a string of immigration raids in the mid-2000s, agents do not plan to conduct workplace raids or other mass enforcement actions, but will instead target addresses for families with deportation orders.
In Norcross, Ga., on Saturday, Joanna Gutierrez said her niece and niece's 9-year-old son were taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who arrived in an unmarked car and presented Gutierrez with a warrant for a man she didn't know.
Gutierrez says she told the agents they needed a warrant to enter her home. They told her they didn't, she says, and walked inside, checking every room in the house and waking her children. "They were shaking from fear," Gutierrez said of the children in a phone interview Saturday night.
After searching the house, the agents showed Gutierrez a photo of her niece, 30-year-old Ana Lizet Mejia. Mejia fled Honduras when her brother was killed by gangs. She entered the U.S. illegally with her son as part of a wave of Central American migrants seeking refuge from violence in the summer of 2014.
Mejia had never missed a court date, Gutierrez said, and wore an ankle monitor provided by the court.
"Why abuse a person who is already in the control of the court?" Gutierrez said.
According to an online inmate locater, Mejia and her son are now in custody, though ICE officials would not confirm the raids and did not give any details on the fates of the families detained or confirm whether they were being held.
Obama administration officials said in late December that they would step up deportations of those who had already been told to leave the country.
"Attempting to unlawfully enter the United States as a family unit does not protect individuals from being subject to the immigration laws of this country," said an official with the Department of Homeland Security who was not permitted to speak on the record. "ICE will continue to pursue the removal of persons who fall within DHS immigration enforcement priorities, including families who are recent unlawful border crossers and who are subject to final orders of removal."
The official says that ICE is working to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, and that the deportations are part of a plan to convince migrants that entering the country illegally is "fruitless."
Previous enforcement policy, officials have said, has done little to deter Central American migrants, and judicial orders releasing many migrant families from detention have fed a perception in Central America that anyone who reaches the U.S. can stay.
Immigrant advocates questioned prioritizing nonviolent migrants for deportation and whether the facilities that hold them are suitable for minors.
"We think they are gathering people at the Atlanta field office," said Adelina Nicholls of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. "We have no idea what's going on there. That's not a location to accommodate children."
In Texas, six Central American families detained in the raids are expected to be brought by Monday to the South Texas Family Residential Center about 70 miles south of San Antonio, according to Mohammad Abdollahi, a spokesman for RAICES, a San Antonio-based legal advocacy group for immigrants.
Abdollahi says advocates will try to contact the families at the detention center to ensure they receive legal help.
They have also been reaching out to families across the country ahead of the raids, especially in large cities, where many relocated after being initially detained at the border.
"We've been calling a lot of the families that may have orders of removal to make sure they know they have legal counsel," Abdollahi said.
But finding enough attorneys to aid the families will be difficult, he said, especially given the influx of migrant youth caught at the southern border since this fall.
"There's an absolute vacuum of legal help given the unaccompanied minors. There just aren't enough lawyers out there," he said.
In Georgia, Gutierrez was still trying to find Mejia and Mejia's son late Saturday, and still struggling to believe her niece was prioritized for deportation. "This is the way it is with police in this country," she told her children.