Five days into the new year and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 121 asylum seekers as part of a new initiative, according to Bryan Cox, ICE’s southern region communication director.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson explained in a statement that the raids are taking place as a result of a recent spike in the number of Central American migrants attempting to enter the United States. “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,” DHS said in a statement.
The Washington Post reported on December 23 that DHS would begin targeting Central American families who arrived in the United States within the past two years. ICE would carry out the arrests beginning “sometime in January,” according to multiple reports, but Cox told Rewire on Monday that arrests are already taking place, primarily in the states of Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. Advocates are also reporting raids of Central American families in New Jersey and New York.
This is believed to be the first large-scale effort to deport the more than 100,000 families who have fled violence in Central America since last year, the bulk of whom are asylum-seeking mothers and children. ICE is specifically targeting adults and children who have been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge.
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Under “new enforcement priorities” outlined by Johnson, there will be an increase in border security and nationwide “removals” will be performed targeting those apprehended at the border or who entered the United States “illegally” after January 1, 2014. DHS announced that it would appeal the decision on the Flores case, which determined that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed secure detention centers. According to Johnson’s statement, the decision, and the resulting injunction, “significantly constrains” DHS’ “ability to respond to an increasing flow of illegal migration into the United States.”
The raids seem to have started in the Atlanta area on January 2, according to #Not1More, a collaboration of organizations, artists, and allies to expose, confront, and overcome unjust immigration laws. The organization reports that “ICE agents barged into homes, even when asked for warrants at the door, removing mothers and children as young as 4 years old.” Faith and immigrants’ rights leaders believe that 47 people were taken into custody by ICE agents in pre-dawn raids in Atlanta, with a majority of them being women and children, according to a press release.
Taken by surprise by the DHS announcement, multiple immigrants’ rights organizations have been scrambling to disseminate information to undocumented communities that will be targeted by the raids, outlining their rights and phone numbers they can call for legal advice and representation.
One such organization based in Connecticut, Unidad Latina en Acción, told Rewire that it has received eight calls per hour since releasing an informational sheet on social media along with its phone number. A grassroots organization founded by Central American immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut, Unidad Latina en Acción reports that as many as 200 Central American women and children residing in the state will be affected by the ICE raids, 155 of whom never had a lawyer to represent them and received a deportation order without any chance to present evidence to an immigration judge.
Most of the undocumented community in Connecticut are indigenous Mayans from Guatemala who survived state-sponsored violence and genocide between 1960 and 1996 when more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. A 1999 report sponsored by the United Nations concluded that 93 percent of those atrocities were committed by the Guatemalan military, which received money and training from the U.S. government.
“I don’t even know if there’s a real understanding of the violence people are fleeing from,” said Joe Foran, a volunteer with Unidad Latina en Acción. “When we talk about why people immigrate, I don’t think the extreme violence in Central America is discussed enough—or how the U.S. played a role. We have a lot of [organization] members who have come to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors within the last few years, especially from Guatemala, and they’ve been through horrific situations. To target people not represented by lawyers, to target people who’ve been coerced into signing things under duress and who’ve only ever been in immigration court when they weren’t able to present evidence [supporting their claim of being an asylum seeker] because they were just detained at the border, is unthinkable.”
Foran told Rewire there have been no raids in Connecticut thus far, just rumors. It’s clear, he said, that the undocumented community is experiencing a great deal of anxiety since DHS’ announcement of the new initiative targeting Central American families, primarily women and children. The Unidad Latina en Acción volunteer confirmed reports of raids in Georgia: Foran said an aunt called the organization’s phone line, saying her family members were coerced into opening their door for ICE, only to have their children detained.
“We were blindsided by all of this. We were surprised by this initiative,” Foran said. “It’s embarrassing to start an initiative like this against the most vulnerable people. Having talked to a lot of the young people who’ve lived through atrocities and who made it here and don’t know the language, who can’t find their relatives, who experienced all kinds of trauma crossing the border—it’s unthinkable ICE would be targeting these same people.”