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Sweep of immigrant families in US illegally comes at poignant moment

A new report suggests the US will deport hundreds of immigrant families ordered to leave by a judge. Some see the move as only scratching the surface. Others see it as a virtual death sentence for those sent home. 

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A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas, in this 2014 photo.

Eric Gay/AP/File

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As the number of Central American families and unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States from Mexico continues to rise, the Department of Homeland Security is planning to undertake raids to round up and deport families deemed illegally present in the US.

The raids and immediate deportations, which could begin as early as January, would mark the first time the US would be sending back to Central America families claiming to be fleeing the high levels of violence  in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other parts of the region.

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News of the get-tough family deportation effort, first reported Thursday in The Washington Post, comes amid fresh controversy over the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration laws.

Proponents of zero tolerance toward illegal immigration say immigration law enforcement under President Obama has “collapsed.”

Migrant advocates counter that the extraordinary levels of crime and gang violence in Central American countries – which regularly sit atop global murder-rate lists – mean that deporting families, and boys and young men in particular, is the equivalent of a death sentence.

The raids, which would be carried out by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would target hundreds of families that have already had their cases heard in court and have been ordered removed from the country by an immigration judge. The number alarms migrant advocates but pales in comparison with the tens of thousands of families that have crossed the southern border since a surge in Central American migration began in 2014.

Immigrant advocates are gearing up to challenge the use of raids to deport families, calling the procedure an outrage and a further deterioration of US recognition of refugee rights.

Proponents of strict immigration law enforcement say tens of thousands of families remain in the US illegally.

The planned raids would constitute barely a blip in an overall “disintegration” of immigration law enforcement, say critics. “Immigration enforcement remains in a state of collapse,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, in a  statement.

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She pointed to year-end ICE statistics that show a 25 percent decline in total deportations and a nearly one-third dropoff in “interior” (meaning not at the border) deportations from 2014 to this year. “These abysmal deportation numbers are the result of deliberate policy choices made by President Obama to dismantle immigration enforcement, all the while telling Congress and the public that he was accomplishing ‘record’ deportations.”

The White House has directed ICE to focus deportation efforts on the “worst of the worst” convicted criminal immigrants, a policy that has led to a rise in criminal deportations as a proportion of total deportations.  

One thing the more muscular deportation approach would appear to underscore is the failure of attempts the US launched in Central American countries last year to warn families not to come to the US illegally.