WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A nationwide wave of arrests of immigrants facing deportation will commence over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday, confirming that the plan, intended to discourage a surge of Central American migrants, was on track after a delay.
The operation is expected to target hundreds of families in 10 cities that have recently been ordered deported by an immigration court but have not yet left the country.
Trump revealed the operation on Twitter last month and then postponed it. It is unusual for the government to announce deportation operations ahead of time.
“People are coming into this country illegally, we are taking them out legally,” Trump told reporters on Friday, calling it a “major operation” that would mainly focus on removing criminals.
In a typical week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests thousands of immigrants who are staying in the country illegally, according to government data. Most of those arrests are made without any advance publicity.
The president, speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, said he was not concerned that the advance notice could help targeted immigrants evade arrest.
“If the word gets out, it gets out,” he said.
Since Trump first spoke of the plan, a number of city mayors, nearly all Democrats, have repeated their long-standing policies of not cooperating with ICE officials on deportations and have advertised helplines people can call to understand their rights.
Democratic lawmakers, among others, have also sought to inform immigrants of their rights, telling them not to open their door for ICE unless agents present a court-issued warrant, and not to say or sign anything before speaking with a lawyer.
Trump, a Republican who has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centrepiece of his administration, is trying to deal with a surge of mostly Central American families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Many families are approaching border officials to seek asylum.
The latest planned arrests would follow widespread criticism of the crowded, unsanitary conditions in which immigrants are being detained along the southwestern border and concerns about children being separated from adults by border officials.
In a hearing on the subject on Friday at the U.S. House of Representatives, some Democrats said they feared the forthcoming arrests could result in more immigrant children being separated from their families.
Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, asked a federal watchdog about its recently issued report saying detention conditions were below standards.
Jennifer Costello, the acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, told the congressional hearing that the government was falling short in terms of “crowding, the prolonged detention, some of the hygiene that the children are supposed to have.”
Costello said it would be “impossible” to meet required standards under “the conditions that we saw there.”
“It’s shocking,” she said.
GRAPHIC - Trump immigration enforcement lags behind Obama : here
Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to visit some of the criticized detention facilities in McAllen, Texas, on Friday along with journalists, who have generally been denied access to detained immigrants.
Pence visited one overcrowded and foul-smelling facility where almost 400 men are detained behind metal fences, some sleeping on concrete, after being accused of crossing the U.S. border illegally.
The Trump administration has increased pressure on the governments of Mexico and several Central American countries to stem the flow of migrants reaching the U.S. border.
Trump is to meet with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales at the White House on Monday for talks on immigration and security. Morales may sign an agreement with Trump declaring Guatemala a safe destination for asylum seekers, which could prevent many from applying in the United States, according to officials in both governments.
Alongside these international efforts, Trump has sought to deter border crossings with highly publicized crackdowns in the United States.
The operation that Trump said would start on Sunday is an example. ICE is expected to target families whose immigration cases were handled through an expedited court process that began in 2018.
The agency has notified about 2,000 of those people that they face deportation because they failed to appear in court, acting ICE Director Mark Morgan said last month.
Immigration rights activists have complained that in many cases immigrants, especially those involved in expedited hearings, do not receive proper notice of their court dates.
ICE has declined to discuss the weekend’s operation, including whether those families are among those being targeted.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups sued this week to stop the arrests going ahead, asking a court to prevent the deportation of asylum-seeking families who missed their court dates until they at least get a hearing.
Mexico’s government said on Friday that it would step up consular assistance for its citizens living in the United States “who may be affected by the possible migratory operations,” but did not give more details.
Reporting by Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Matthew Lavietes and Jonathan Allen in New York, Richard Cowan and Mohammed Zargham in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, and Stefanie Eschenbacher in Mexico City; Writing by Susan Heavey and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Dan Grebler, Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis