President Donald Trump said his administration will move forward “fairly soon” with a plan to arrest thousands of migrant families in surprise roundups across major U.S. cities, with the two-week deadline he imposed on Democrats coming up on Saturday.
Trump tipped off the mass arrests in a June 17 tweet, vowing "millions" of deportations,but called them off five days later. The president tweeted that he delayed the raids for two weeks at Democrats' request, "to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border."
"If not," he wrote, "Deportations start!"
Trump's threats have left immigrants living in the United States illegally in a fog of dread, putting neighborhoods on edge and making residents fear venturing outside.
Eva, who works at a plant nursery in Homestead, Florida, said she has stopped going to the park and makes trips to the grocery store every few weeks.
"I don't know when I leave in the morning if I'll come home in the night," said Eva, who arrived illegally 19 years ago from Mexico and whose teen daughter is a U.S. citizen.
"They could come and get me at any time," she said, asking for her last name to be withheld for fear it could help ICE find her.
In addition to many lawmakers being out of town and the deadline for congressional action expiring this weekend, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in transition: Many supervisors and agents have been on vacation for the July 4 holiday, and the current acting head, Mark Morgan, is leaving to start a new job Monday as the acting chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Carol Danko, a spokesperson for ICE, declined to discuss the agency's plans.
"ICE does not comment on sensitive law enforcement operations," she said.
The president did exactly that, though, in his June 17 tweet advertising mass arrests he said would start the following week. Operational details of the plan began leaking out and circulating on Capitol Hill soon after.
White House aides and Homeland Security officials were frustrated that the president put ICE's plans on Twitter, prompting concerns that the operation's blown cover diminished its chances for success and jeopardized the safety of federal agents. Administration officials said it was the uproar that followed - not a potential deal with House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. - that led to the operation's delay.
The Justice Department and Homeland Security officials began working on the "family operation" in late 2018 to deport some of the Central American parents and children who have been arriving in record numbers during the past year, viewing the arrests as a deterrent to future migration.
The Justice Department fast-tracked the cases of thousands of families, many of whom claimed fear of harm if sent back. Homeland Security officials say 90 percent of those ordered deported did not show up for their court hearings.
ICE developed a target list this spring with thousands of names in at least 10 cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, New York and other major immigrant destinations. Senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and other White House officials urged the arrests and deportations to be carried out in a highly visible fashion for the sake of maximum publicity.
The "family op" stalled, though, as Homeland Security officials worried it would trigger a wave of outrage similar to the fury over last year's "Zero Tolerance" family separations.
Former ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello and DHS Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen were ousted in April when they challenged the plan, doubting its preparation and timing. The current acting secretary of DHS, Kevin McAleenan, also hesitated last month, warning the roundups would potentially incur more separations, inflaming Democrats and jeopardizing a supplemental funding bill to alleviate the crisis at the Mexico border.
Lawmakers passed the $4.6 billion border bill last week in a rare bipartisan vote that exposed fissures between moderate and left-wing Democrats over immigration policy.
With the money approved, White House and DHS officials say the operation will go forward in the coming weeks.
Matt Albence, who takes over Sunday as ICE's acting chief for the second time this year, is a leading proponent of the family operation, viewing it as crucial to upholding U.S. law and his own agency's role as the enforcer of judicial orders.
Trump's June 22 tweet crediting Pelosi with the delay was a "face-saving" move, said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to contradict the president's public statement.
Since then, acting Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's office has been working with Homeland Security officials to figure out if the family operation can proceed in a more targeted way, instead of the "shock and awe" approach favored by Miller and others.
White House officials said they have also been concerned the administration lacks a fully cooked communications strategy to explain the goals of the mass arrests and minimize the potential fallout from images of families being taken into custody.
The current plan is to carry out the arrests in a more piecemeal fashion, without announcing dates or times in advance, the senior official said, cautioning there is "always a chance POTUS blurts them out."
The president has been briefed on the broad strokes of the plan, but not the precise details, the official said.
ICE officials expect they may be able to detain only 10% to 20% of their targets in each city, so they are trying to calibrate the president's expectations, particularly after he pledged to sweep up millions of deportation-eligible foreigners.
Officials at ICE concede that few of the families on their list are likely to be encountered at the addresses provided to the courts. The agency is expecting to find some of those individuals and make "collateral" arrests of others they encounter who lack legal status or have outstanding deportation orders.
In the meantime, other Homeland Security officials are telling the public the family arrest plan is back on track.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told Fox Business Network on Friday that ICE's mission is "going to go forward."
"The president's determined about it. I'm sure Matt Albence is ready and raring to go," said Cuccinelli, who does not oversee immigration enforcement. "And he's preparing his agency to recommence doing what they view as their job. And I think Americans should expect that."
Cuccinelli said he did not know the timeline for the raids, and said officials "will not preannounce" them. He said the publicity over last month's planned raids - which he called a "media mess" - had complicated the government's plans.
Large-scale federal law enforcement operations are not publicized ahead of time, to protect the safety of officers and increase the chances the targets can be caught unaware.
Cuccinelli also criticized House Democrats, saying they impaired the raids and failed to close asylum "loopholes" that officials say are fueling the border surge. The Trump administration is urging Democrats to pass laws that would grant greater flexibility to detain and deport unaccompanied minors and families who claim asylum. Most are quickly released pending a court hearing because of federal laws and court rulings that limit how long the government can detain children.
The constant churn of threats and rumored raids has left those facing potential deportation on edge.
Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, a mother of three, took refuge in the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, seven months ago after immigration officials ordered her to go back to El Salvador. There, friends visit her, ministers teach her to meditate and she can join conference calls with others seeking protection in different cities.
They encourage one another, debate the latest declarations from Trump and update each other on new, strange letters from ICE to their old home addresses.
"We are all just waiting for an opportunity, for the laws to change and for someone to have a heart," Gutierrez Lopez said. "There is nothing good waiting for us in our countries."
Across the United States, volunteers are setting up hotlines so immigrants can report raids, and organizing volunteers to fan out to observe arrests and help afterward. Advocates are promoting videos in multiple languages - including Spanish, Urdu, and Russian - that immigrants can watch at home to prepare for the moment an immigration agent knocks on their door. Advocates are teaching immigrants their legal rights in hair salons, supermarkets, and church halls. Some are finding places for immigrants to hide.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit that aids immigrants, launched a letter-writing campaign to senators and representatives urging them to pressure ICE to stop the raids, calling them "domestic terrorism." More than 18,300 people have sent the letters since June 21, the day before Trump canceled the first raids, the nonprofit said.
Immigrant families are stashing away money, seeking out church pastors for advice or sanctuary, and having "the talk" with their children about the possibility that one day an immigration agent could knock on their door.
"They're definitely scared," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which is teaching immigrants their legal rights in private sessions. "Even if the numbers are small, the purpose of the raids and the show of force is to scare a larger population. The threat is purposely meant to affect and destabilize a whole group of people. It's that psychological attack. Maybe they'll come for me. Maybe they won't. Maybe it'll be my neighbor. It's very mentally draining."
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The Washington Post’s Lori Rozsa from Homestead, Florida, and Seung Min Kim from Washington contributed to this report.