Don’t open your door. Ask for a warrant when a stranger knocks on your door. Memorize the phone numbers of relatives and lawyers.
These are just some of the pieces of advice that immigrant advocates have been giving Central Americans who entered the country after May 2014, now that the Obama administration has begun an aggressive immigration operation targeting them for deportation in the new year.
Over the weekend, at least 121 Central American individuals primarily from Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina were taken into custody and are now in the process of being repatriated to their countries of origin.
The recent raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency mark “the first large-scale effort to deport families who have fled violence in Central America,” according to the Washington Post, which first reported about the operation toward the end of last month.
“This is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the President himself has talked about; that our enforcement efforts need to be focused on deporting felons, not families, and with a particular focus on individuals who have only recently crossed the border,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a press briefing on Monday.
But immigrant advocates say the phrase — which Obama adopted in November 2014 to assure people that his administration would prioritize deportation for criminal immigrants — rings hollow given that families were the focus of the weekend raids.
“President Obama continues to cement his legacy as Deporter-in-Chief,” Cristina Jimenez, the managing director of United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, said. She likened the weekend raid to something that Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who espouses extreme anti-immigrant views, would do. “Raids and ICE activity reported in shopping centers, near parks and churches have forced families to miss work and avoid sending their children to school today.”
About 150 organizations signed a letter expressing opposition to the Obama administration for causing a “state of fear” among immigrant communities. “Raids would convey the message that these families are a threat to border security, when the reality is that most are asylum seekers in need of humanitarian protection,” the letter in part reads. “We urge you to renounce the use of such harsh tactics against this incredibly vulnerable group that has already suffered horrible, uncontrolled gang violence, domestic violence, and other forms of persecution.”
More than 100,000 Latin American families as well as unaccompanied children — many of whom are under the age of 12 — crossed the southern U.S. border in 2014 to flee violence in their home countries, prompting the U.S. government to respond by fast-tracking immigration court proceedings. In some cases, immigration lawyers complained that the 21-day turnaround for court proceedings didn’t give them enough time to represent unaccompanied minors in court, leaving as many as 61 percent of mothers and children without legal representation.
The ICE agency is using the nationwide operation to prioritize people with final orders of removal, a DHS spokesperson told the Washington Post. But it’s as yet unclear how many of the apprehended individuals actually have those orders.
And according to the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), an immigration advocacy group in the Atlanta metro area, ICE agents may be using deceptive tactics to gain entry into immigrants’ homes to make arrests.
Families in the region told GLAHR that ICE agents knocked on their doors very early in the morning and said they were looking for a “wanted” African-American man in a photo. Although the residents didn’t recognize the individual in the photo, they allowed ICE agents into their homes because “they wanted to be collaborative,” GLAHR executive director Adelina Nicholls said.
“ICE didn’t identify themselves,” Nicholls told ThinkProgress. “[The families] didn’t know if they were ICE or the police. They were not able to identify the car, no logos. The only thing is that six agents came in the house and two of them were wearing dark jackets with the word ‘POLICE’ on the back.”
As soon as agents entered the homes, they went into the bedrooms to get people to come out into the common area. Occupants were asked their legal status, and in each case, when the women responded that they didn’t have legal status, agents proceeded to show their photos and arrest them. “Everybody was in shock — crying, screaming,” Nicholls said.
One of the people arrested this weekend, a Guatemalan woman with two young sons, told Nicholls that ICE agents were dressed in “civilian clothing” when they approached her.
Five families affiliated with GLAHR were taken into custody and sent to the South Texas Detention Facility in Dilley, Texas, a large immigration detention facility built to detain women and children migrants. According to at least one of the detained immigrants who called a family member from the detention facility, there were at least 47 other people on that flight from Atlanta to Texas.
The Obama administration is likely sticking to a harsh enforcement policy given a renewed spike in the number of Central American children showing up on the southern border in the latter months of 2015. The number of children crossing the border started to pick up again last July.
“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values,” Johnson said in a statement. “At my direction, additional enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate.”
Johnson added that his department and the State Department are both “accelerating” the development of a program to screen Central American refugees in their countries. In his statement’s conclusion, Johnson anticipated backlash from immigrant advocates, acknowledging that critics would likely “loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh” — but added that the country “must enforce the law consistent with our priorities.”
Nicholls is one of the immigrant advocates who isn’t afraid to condemn Johnson’s agency. “As a Latino, as an immigrant, every single time they invade a home, they’re invading an entire community as well,” she said.