Ex-ICE officials criticize Trump’s tweet about upcoming deportation sweep

President Trump issued a public warning Monday night, by tweet, of a mass deportation effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to start next week.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” he tweeted.

Trump is holding a rally Tuesday in Orlando, billed as the kickoff to his reelection campaign.

The president did not offer any other details about how ICE, which is already detaining a record number of immigrants, intends to further ramp up its interior enforcement efforts. However, his tweet seemed to suggest that the agency was preparing to execute a plan that Trump and senior immigration adviser Stephen Miller have reportedly been pushing for months, to arrest and remove thousands of families, prompting sharp criticism from some former ICE officials.

There are an estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and deporting all of them is a logistical impossibility, say former Obama administration officials who dealt with immigration issues. The more likely outcome will be a great deal of publicity and the removal of “hundreds,” not millions, one told Yahoo News, characterizing the tweet as “typical Trump braggadocio.”

Officials added that announcing the operation ahead of time was self-defeating and could put agents at risk.

“This runs afoul of basic law enforcement 101. You never telegraph operations en masse,” said John Amaya, who served as deputy chief of staff at ICE in the Obama administration. “On one hand, you alert the target. But on the other, and worse yet, you are putting officer safety at risk. This president doesn’t understand the first thing about law enforcement, and he is now showing that he cares about officer well-being even less.”

Kevin Landy, another former senior ICE official, agreed that Trump’s tweet “demonstrates once again why his own officials try to avoid briefing him on classified information.”

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) ICE agents detain a suspected MS-13 gang member and Honduran immigrant at his home on March 29, 2018, in Brentwood, N.Y. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Homeland Security Investigations ICE agents detain a suspected MS-13 gang member and Honduran immigrant in Brentwood, N.Y., in 2018. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Landy, who led the agency’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning under Obama, said that “ICE periodically plans coordinated enforcement actions against adults, with arrests executed by ICE field offices across the country.” Such operations, he said, are conducted partly for “PR value.”

“Going after families in one action would probably maximize publicity, which the administration wants, in order to create a deterrent effect. They also hope that mass arrests in one operation will allow for an element of surprise,” Landy told Yahoo News. “Trump, of course, is unable to keep a secret, and in this case he’s spilled the beans on a sensitive law enforcement operation.”

Not only did Trump warn the entire country, including the potential targets of ICE’s upcoming operation, but Landy argued that his claim that ICE is beginning the process of removing “millions” is also “typical Trump braggadocio.”

“Yes, there are millions of undocumented immigrants, but this operation will result in arrests of hundreds. The difference is that ICE will be arresting families, not that the numbers will be larger,” said Landy, saying that there are a variety of logistical constraints involved in carrying out such an operation, including limitations on the number of ICE officers available to execute arrests and to process required paperwork, transportation capacity and, “most significantly, limits on family detention capacity while the removals are being processed.”

Last month, the Washington Post reported that in the weeks before they left office in April, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello had pushed back against a White House plan to conduct mass arrests of thousands of parents and children in 10 major cities across the country. The former officials had reportedly expressed concern about whether ICE was prepared to conduct such an operation, which would involve targeting migrant families’ homes and communities, the diversion of resources it would require from the border, and the risk of inciting public outrage with images of agents taking children and parents into custody.

In explaining his decision to pull Vitiello’s nomination for ICE director in April, Trump expressed a desire to take the agency in a “tougher direction.” Vitiello has since been replaced by Mark Morgan, a former FBI and Border Patrol official turned cable news proponent of harsh immigration enforcement policies. At a briefing earlier this month, Morgan told reporters in Washington about the agency’s plans to step up interior enforcement operations in an effort to deter Central American families who have been traveling to the southern U.S. border to seek asylum in record numbers over the past several months.

“We will be going after individuals who have gone through due process, who have received final orders of deportation. That will include families,” Morgan said at the briefing, explaining that the target of this new focus would be migrants who had either missed a court hearing or received deportation orders for other reasons.

Mark Morgan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Morgan, the new acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is laying the groundwork to step up deportations of families. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)
Mark Morgan, acting director of ICE, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

“They seem to take delight in terrorizing families and most vulnerable people,” said Jennifer Williams, the deputy attorney-in-charge of the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society of New York City. “I’m getting terrible flashbacks of last summer, when they were separating parents and kids at the border. I would have expected the administration to have learned its lesson after the country responded to the horrors of what they did.”

Williams, who said she and her colleagues often represent individuals with final orders of removal, said the most common scenario for issuing a deportation order covering an entire family would be if they entered the country together, were released from custody with a notice to appear in immigration court and, for any one of “a million reasons,” missed their hearing.

“Missing a court date, even if you show up half an hour late, could result in an in absentia order, which are really hard to undo,” said Williams, saying that without the help of an attorney, migrants often don’t know that they need to alert ICE of any address changes and may not even be aware that they’ve missed a hearing and are now subject to removal.

Williams said migrants who aren’t sure of their court date or if they have a pending final order of removal can check with the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review at 800-898-7180 using the nine-digit alien number provided to them by ICE upon arrival.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of immigrant and refugee rights organizations across 31 states, condemned Trump’s warning and announced that “with 150 attorneys and legal staff across the nation, NPNA will work to actively teach immigrant families how to protect themselves, use all of their legal rights to avoid deportation, and ensure that our immigrant families and communities are prepared.”

National organizations like the ACLU, as well as local community groups in places like North Carolina, have already been taking similar action in response to ICE activity and, in response to the latest warning from Trump, have indicated that they intend to continue their efforts.

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