Immigration agents over the weekend conducted the first raids targeting the deportation of families who flocked across the United States' southern border over the past two years, a senior government official said Monday.
Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement that the 121 people rounded up during raids in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina were primarily members of Central American families that crossed into the U.S. via Mexico since May 2014. Most were placed in family detention centers in Texas to await deportation.
In the statement, Johnson said the raids "should come as no surprise," adding that he has said publicly for months "that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
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Those targeted in the raids had been issued final orders of removal by immigration courts and had exhausted other legal remedies, including claims for asylum, Johnson said.
The latest actions affect only a fraction of the more than 100,000 Central American family members, mostly mothers with children, who crossed into the U.S. during an immigration surge that began in the spring of 2014. The surge has been linked to a rise in gang-related violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, while many migrants from these countries have also claimed asylum due to domestic violence, or are seeking to reunite with family members already in the United States.
U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement did not say further raids were planned for the coming days and weeks. However, ICE's official position since November 2014 is that it would continue to conduct enforcement actions daily.
In a news conference Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that "politics did not factor" into the decision by Homeland Security officials to conduct raids, despite increased debate about immigration enforcement and policy by Republicans on the presidential campaign trail.
Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the group was "shocked and outraged" to hear of the roundups on "women and children who are extremely vulnerable and by and large have fled from horrendous violence in their home countries." Chen added that it was unclear whether those apprehended had been represented by lawyers during their immigration proceedings.
Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, called the weekend raids "enforcement theater." The 121 individuals taken in over the weekend represent "half a day's worth of new illegal immigrants" crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, and new immigrants will not be deterred.
Guatemala's Foreign Ministry said via Twitter that it was monitoring the situation, and promised to offer consular assistance and protection to its citizens living overseas. Vice Minister Oscar Padilla said that starting Monday, consulates would be interviewing and reviewing the cases of citizens on deportation lists to ensure that each has an order signed by a judge.
"We are going to review every one of the cases. We are going to support them and be sure that these people do not have any alternative," Padilla said.
The ministry also advised Guatemalans in the United States that they need not open their doors to immigration agents unless the officers have a warrant signed by a judge, and that they carry with them at all times phone numbers of family members, a lawyer and the nearest consulate.
El Salvador issued similar advice to any of its citizens facing enforcement action in the U.S. In a statement Monday, foreign minister Hugo Martinez criticized the raids, saying they would not resolve the problem of illegal migration to the United States, and pledged the support of Salvadoran consulates to citizens in need.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City, Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City, and Marcos Aleman in San Salvador contributed to this report.