The Obama administration is planning another series of raids that would lead to the deportation of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.
The news drew protests from several members of Congress and both Democratic presidential candidates.
The raids will target adults and children who crossed the border illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, a population of immigrants that the Obama administration has identified as priorities for deportation, according to Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron.
"We must enforce the law," Catron said, adding that federal agents will only target individuals who have already been issued a deportation order by an immigration court. She said agents would try to avoid conducting raids "at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and places of worship, except in emergency circumstances."
The government detained more than 100 people in similar raids earlier this year, most of whom were women and children who had sought political asylum in the U.S. after fleeing turbulent Central American countries including Honduras and El Salvador.
News of another round of raids, which was first reported by Reuters, drew swift criticism from immigrant advocates.
"These plans are callous, tone-deaf and absolutely wrong," said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Right now, these migrants need our nation's protection, not deportation."
Salas said the raids come at a "critical moment" of tensions over illegal immigration that have worsened because of statements by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has called for mass deportations and the construction of a large border wall.
At the same time, a case that will determine the fate of an Obama administration program that offered deportation protection to millions of immigrants with long-standing ties to the U.S. is pending at the Supreme Court.
"The Obama administration and [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] could not be more unhelpful by deciding to go through with these raids," said Salas, who warned they would cause fear in immigrant communities.
The raids appear to be at least partly an attempt by the administration to dissuade further illegal immigration from Central America.
Administration officials have said in the past that they believe smugglers have spread rumors in Central America that women and children who get to the U.S.-Mexico border are guaranteed asylum and that those rumors have prompted many people to embark on a dangerous route north.
In recent months, a large wave of families fleeing the region have sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Asylum cases, which require proof that the individual applicant has been targeted for persecution in his or her home country, are infrequently approved by immigration courts, and many immigrants end up with deportation orders. In the past, children have often not been targeted for removal by immigration agents.
Democratic presidential rivals Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who are both vying for Latino votes, criticized the deportation plan Thursday.
"I oppose the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families who have fled horrendous violence in Central America and other countries," Sanders said. "Sending these people back into harm's way is wrong."
Sanders urged Obama to use his executive authority to extend a protection known as Temporary Protective Status to those fleeing Central America.
Clinton said she is "against large-scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities." She called for a plan "to stop the root causes of the violence in Central America and expand orderly resettlement programs."
"I am concerned about recent news reports, and believe we should not be taking kids and families from their homes in the middle of the night," she said.
She has softened her position on the issue since 2014, when she told a reporter that she believed immigrant children from Central America "should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are."