The United States government is reportedly planning to conduct a crackdown on illegal immigrants, mainly targeting Central American mothers and children who entered the US illegally, following a fiercely contested two-day raid in January.
The series of raids in May and June will be the largest sweep targeting immigrant families, Reuters reports. This winter, immigration officers conducted a similar raid focusing on Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia. That raid resulted in the deportation of about 121 people, mostly women and children from Central America.
The government appears to be responding to the recent surge in the number of illegal immigrants, coming mainly from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American countries that have recently experienced escalations in gang violence, exacerbated by drought. The result has been a mass exodus, with the US as the main destination.
The recent deportations mark a shift in the Obama's administration policies toward immigration, which initially focused on deporting criminals, not families. But the recent uptick in the number of undocumented immigrants has renewed concerns that the numbers may continue to soar if the government doesn't take action.
Between October and March, the Border Patrol detained about 32,000 so-called family units: mothers and children traveling together. That's more than double the 2015 numbers during the same period, and higher than the 19,800 family units that were recorded during the same period in 2014. The number of unaccompanied minors during that same period has almost doubled from 15,616 in 2015 to 27,754 in 2016, just below the 28,579 record reported between October 2013 and March 2014.
The announcement comes amid a presidential election cycle in which immigration has triggered fierce debate. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for mass deportations of illegal immigrants and pledged to build a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.
Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have spoken out against deporting children and non-criminals. In a debate held in March, Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton told a woman whose husband had been deported that "I will do everything I can to prevent other families from facing what you are facing" at a debate in March, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) of Vermont said that it is immoral for parents to be separated from their children.
Both candidates have decried the government's planned deportations, saying that immigrants must be protected when they are fleeing violence in their home countries.
"I'm against large scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities," Clinton said in a statement responding to the government's plan, the Hill reported.
"I oppose the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families who have fled horrendous violence in Central America and other countries," Senator Sanders said in a statement. "Sending these people back into harm's way is wrong," he added.
The series of raids set to take place over May and June will target adults and children who crossed the border illegally after Jan. 1, 2014. The administration says it's targeting undocumented immigrants who have already been told to leave the US, as well as those who have failed to show up for court dates.
Immigration officials say that the smugglers responsible for helping people cross the borders are misleading women in Central America, telling them that asylum is guaranteed once they enter the US, and encouraging them to take the risk of fleeing to the north with their children in tow. To dissuade further immigration, the administration has conducted radio and television campaigns in these countries, highlighting the dangers of making the journey.
Immigrants crossing the border often face dangers ranging from extortion to kidnapping and deadly accidents to murder. As The Christian Science Monitor's Whitney Eulich reported in October, "nongovernmental organizations and shelters estimate that between 60 percent and 80 percent are raped at least once while migrating north. Many are recruited or coerced into sex work in brothels and bars in Guatemala and Mexico."
Currently, there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, mainly from Mexico and Central America. The number of detentions at the US border has been declining recently, a factor which experts attribute to tighter border controls in Mexico. Between October 2014 and April 2015, Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central American migrants trying to cross into the United States, nearly double the 49,893 apprehended during the same period the year before, as the Monitor reported.