The Trump administration swept aside nearly all restrictions Tuesday on targeting for removal the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, a vast expansion of the federal government’s deportation priorities as the president pursues his promised crackdown on illegal immigration.
In a pair of memos, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly instructed immigration officers to widen the net and set the stage for hiring thousands more enforcement agents as he moved to implement the executive order on illegal immigration that President Trump signed during his first week in office.
“The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday.
With the new guidelines, Trump took a significant step closer to realizing his and top aides’ vision for reducing the immigrant population in the U.S.
Though Kelly emphasized that immigration officers should focus first on deporting convicted criminals or those charged with crimes, his directives nonetheless unleashed deportation officers to conduct more raids in immigrant communities, detain people who don’t have criminal convictions and remove people for minor infractions such as driving without a license.
“No matter how much they deny it, it is clear that the White House is setting in motion their mass deportation plan, directing immigration agents to round up and quickly deport anyone who is undocumented,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Kelly’s instructions also expand so-called expedited removals, in which someone in the U.S. illegally is thrown out without appearing before an immigration judge. Such deportations, which had been limited to people caught within 100 miles of the border within two weeks of entering the country, will apply to people caught anywhere in the country within two years of arriving illegally.
Immigration officers now can also charge parents who pay smugglers to bring their children into the country illegally with immigration violations.
Trump administration officials said they were fulfilling the pledge of the president who promised more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws and were also responding to a rise in illegal border crossings.
“A surge of illegal immigration at the southern border has overwhelmed federal agencies and resources and has created a significant national security vulnerability to the United States,” Kelly wrote in one of the memos, adding that immigration courts are experiencing “a historic backlog of removal cases.”
In October and November, the Obama administration apprehended more than 90,000 immigrants along the southern border, an increase of about 42% over the same period in 2015, according to Kelly.
The Obama administration, which deported a record number of migrants, took a far less disruptive stance on immigration by focusing on those who were either convicted of a crime, had recently crossed the border or had repeatedly entered the country illegally.
Immigration officials can act on the new priorities immediately.
Among their first targets could be the more than 940,000 people who already have a final order of removal from an immigration judge and have either refused to leave or were allowed to stay temporarily, often because of the hardship their deportation would cause to family in the U.S.
Other efforts will take time. Kelly’s guidelines call for hiring 10,000 more immigration enforcement officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents and for the immediate planning and building of a wall along the southern border, all of which Trump ordered earlier. The Border Patrol has already identified places for building new walls and fencing near El Paso, Tucson and El Centro, Calif., and is studying additional locations.
Kelly’s memos did not specify how the Trump administration plans to deal with 750,000 so-called Dreamers, migrants brought to the country illegally as children and granted work permits under an initiative by President Obama.
Trump has publicly wavered on whether to deport the Dreamers, and the White House has identified ways to remove them from the U.S. without Trump’s fingerprints.
Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were to travel Wednesday to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and other top officials in an attempt to repair relations between the countries that have been frayed by Trump’s hard line on immigration and incendiary rhetoric on Mexico.
To clear the way for removals, Kelly and Tillerson have also been instructed to punish countries that refuse to accept people being deported, including by withholding visas from citizens and issuing formal diplomatic complaints, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
About 23 countries currently don’t accept deportations from the U.S., including Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Mexico is not among them.
Courts have ruled that people from those countries can’t be held to await deportation indefinitely, even if they have a violent criminal conviction. As a result, more than 8,000 immigrants with criminal records have been released in the last three years.
Top officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are encouraging federal prosecutors to lower the threshold for bringing criminal charges on immigration offenses. ICE also plans to create a new office, the National Lead Development Center, to refer immigration-fraud and benefit-fraud cases to prosecutors.
Homeland Security will also establish an office to assist victims of crimes committed by those in the country illegally, according to the memos.
In his memos, Kelly also instructed immigration officials to expand the number and size of detention facilities to hold asylum seekers and people awaiting hearings in immigration court. More than 1,100 detention beds have been added since Trump was sworn in last month. Cases for people held in detention can move more quickly, and they can be deported faster than those released and told to appear in court.
Advocates for immigrants are concerned about the poor conditions in detention facilities, many of which are also local jails and have a track record of substandard medical care. Also, immigrants in detention facilities have a much harder time getting lawyers.
ICE officials told lawmakers last week said that although Trump’s executive order could allow them to deport all 11 million people in the country illegally, they don’t have the resources to do so, according to Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“Everyone’s at risk,” she said. “That’s pretty chilling.”
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.