More than a hundred immigrants, mostly Central American families, were detained in a handful of states through the weekend in a federal effort to deport those who recently entered the country and stayed illegally, according to officials and advocates.
As part of the operation, 121 people were taken into custody -- primarily in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas -- and are being processed for deportation, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Monday.
Advocates said immigrants were also detained in Maryland, New York and the Midwest, but immigration officials said those may be unrelated or not immigration-enforcement actions. Areas targeted for the sweeps appear to be among those with the highest number of immigrants who have been ordered deported, advocates said.
"This should come as no surprise," Johnson said of the roundup. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
In the past, federal officials have targeted adults in workplace raids. But this time, authorities focused on families with children at home, Johnson said. Specifically, officials went after those caught crossing the southern border illegally after May 2014 who had been issued final orders of removal, or deportation, by an immigration court and have no outstanding appeals.
Johnson said that extra precautions were taken, "given the sensitive nature of taking into custody and removing families with children," including deploying female agents and medical personnel.
Those detained were taken to federal immigrant family detention centers, including a large center about 70 miles south of San Antonio.
It was not clear when the sweep would end.
"At my direction, additional enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate," Johnson said.
Although federal officials have showed up at some businesses – including strip malls on Long Island, New York - advocates said mostly they have sought immigrants at home.
Orders of removal give Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and agents authority to detain immigrants but not to enter their homes without permission. ICE officers and agents often arrive without warrants because immigration judges issue final orders of removal, not warrants in most cases.
Immigrants have the right to deny ICE officials entry, and if they say no, the federal officials are expected to honor that.
The raids have stirred fear among immigrants nationwide, who have been contacting advocates for advice on what to do if ICE agents come knocking.
This weekend, Guatemalan and Salvadoran government officials began posting warnings online for immigrants in the U.S. targeted in the sweeps advising them not to open their doors, to seek legal help and avoid signing documents.
"Do not open the door to strangers who say they are looking for someone else," the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry recommended in a statement posted online in Spanish, "Immigration agents have to show an order signed by a judge to enter your house. If they don't have it, you are not required to open the door. You have rights that have to be respected."
Bryan Johnson, a New York-based immigration lawyer, was among those fielding calls - about 140 Monday - from clients worried they might be rounded up.
"To be on the safe side, just don't answer the door," he tells them. "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."
Many immigrants are unaware that they can turn officials away, he and other advocates said.
"ICE is going into people's homes really early and so families feel intimidated and they open the door. They should not open the door unless ICE shares a warrant with a specific name for the person they are looking for," said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of the New York-based group United We Dream, which created a hotline related to the raids.
They have received calls about those detained on Long Island and in Austin and Houston, Texas.
"Folks should be asking for the immigration agents to show them this paper, to pass it under the door," Jimenez said of warrants. "We've also advised people to remain silent because you have the right," Jimenez said. He suggested immigrants keep phone numbers for attorneys, relatives and friends handy.
Once immigrants open the door, federal officials are free to question and detain not only those they came for, but others who happen to be home, Jimenez said.
"They go after everybody. And some of these people are mixed-status families: some are citizens, legal residents, some have status pending," she said.
Among those ICE attempted to detain this weekend was a Central American mother who was ordered deported but has an appeal pending, according to Mohammad Abdollahi, a spokesman for the San Antonio-based legal advocacy group that she has been working with.
The woman had been staying with her sister in New Jersey, and was out when ICE agents showed up Saturday, Abdollahi said. Her sister refused to open the door and the agents left, he said.
Another immigrant woman in San Antonio opened the door to ICE agents who were looking for someone else this weekend, and ended up getting fingerprinted even though she is in the country legally, Abdollahi said.
"Any time there is an authority figure, people do what they tell them to do," he said, "They're going after anyone they can find."
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