Raids criticized sharply by multiple sides of the immigration debate began this weekend, as the Department of Homeland Security prepared to deport hundreds of families who illegally entered the United States during dramatic spikes over the past two years, as gang violence and drought drove tens of thousands of Central Americans north.
At least 121 people were taken into custody this weekend, officials said Monday.
"This should come as no surprise," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
But the 2014 immigration crisis, which had dwindled but then picked up again in late 2015, has proven a challenge for the Obama administration as it seeks to appease both humans rights and immigration advocates and others concerned about border security. Roughly 100,000 families have entered the country since early 2014, mostly coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Plans for the raids were leaked in late December to The Washington Post, suggesting dissent within the administration about how to balance security needs with humanitarian concerns.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the president supported the raids, with a focus on deporting "felons, not families," and recent immigrants who entered the United States illegally.
"Certainly, people should take from this the understanding that the administration is quite serious about enforcing our immigration laws," Mr. Earnest said.
Yet the raids are targeting illegal immigrants, many of them families, whose asylum claims have been rejected by immigration courts. Deportations for single adults increased as early as the summer of 2014, as the number of families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border soared.
In the last months of 2015, those numbers picked up once more: 12,500 families and 10,588 unaccompanied children were apprehended in October and November, twice the number from 2014. Typically, immigration slows during the fall as colder weather approaches.
As immigration officials struggled to deal with the inflow, many were released and told to appear later for asylum hearings. Others were sent to family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, which still hold around 1,700.
But reports of unsafe conditions have pressured the administration to release families, and in August, a federal judge ruled that Homeland Security had violated a decree to treat minors in custody humanely and give them a prompt hearing, and ordered the centers to begin releasing families and unaccompanied children.
President Obama sought to prevent the deportation of 5 million illegal immigrants via executive action in November 2014, but was blocked by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The administration has asked the Supreme Court to hear the case in 2016.
"This is the last thing we expected from the administration at this point, given the court decision," Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told The Wall Street Journal. "It is time that the administration acknowledged once and for all that these mothers and children are refugees just like Syrians."
Honduras has the highest homicide rate of any country, according to a 2014 report from the United Nations: 90.4 per 100,000 people. El Salvador was third, at 41.2 per 100,000.
Statistics like those make many advocates say that the White House needs to be more compassionate in its attitude towards illegal immigrants, and treat them as refugees. Many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of deporting mothers and children fleeing violence, but soaring gang activity means that young men and teens could also be extremely vulnerable if forced to return.
Advocates are also opposed to the current raid tactic of searching neighborhoods, frequently used during President George W. Bush's two terms in office. In the past, the Obama administration has preferred to have local law enforcement detain illegal immigrants when and where they happen to find them, according to Vox.
Some defended the raids as a message to discourage Central American families from following friends or family to the United States, but others said that, given the violence many are fleeing, they might have little choice.
"The raids may serve a political purpose for the Administration, but it will not deter the flight of refugees from Central America," Kevin Appleby, international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, told Politico. "It only sends vulnerable families back to danger, many of whom did not receive adequate due process protections from our legal system."
Meanwhile, other think tanks voiced continued criticism of Obama for what they describe as a lenient record on border security.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Washington Post that the raids were "enforcement theater," amounting to just a "drop in the bucket compared to the number they've admitted into the country."
This report contains material from Reuters.