WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump could have a tough time making good on his threat to deport millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. But maybe that wasn’t his point.
Trump’s late-night messages promised that starting next week his administration “will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they can.”
That was a pronouncement likely to excite his political base just as he was formally announcing his reelection bid Tuesday night. It also scared immigrants in the U.S. illegally — and could deter others from coming.
But it may have come at a cost.
Trump blatantly exposed an upcoming enforcement operation, potentially jeopardizing the kind of sensitive effort that takes months to plan and relies on secrecy. The president’s tweets put new, fresh demands on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency in charge of removals, which is already overwhelmed, lacking staff, funding and detention space for its current work.
And any massive roundup that includes deportation of mothers, fathers and children would be sure to spark outrage.
“Once again, the president has demonstrated he has no understanding of immigration law,” Rockford immigration attorney Sara Dady said. “You can’t round people up without evidence and ship them across the border.”
Dady added, “Pledging to deport a million people when there are already a million cases pending before the immigration courts is not helpful to either the U.S. immigration system or our economy. If the president really cared about making sure there were no undocumented people in the U.S., he would promote policies and legislation to document them — like the DREAM Act.”
Mark Karner, chief deputy of the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, said ICE officials have not been in contact with the sheriff’s department in advance of any future illegal immigrant roundups.
Two years ago, a political firestorm erupted when the sheriff revealed that he had been contacted by ICE and asked if he would consider being paid to house ICE detainees. Strapped for cash, the sheriff entertained the offer, but after receiving feedback during several public meetings, the sheriff declined.
Linda Zuba, also a Rockford-based attorney who works on behalf of immigrants’ rights, has made two trips to Mexico within the past year to help immigrants seeking asylum.
“Unfortunately, while Trump excites his political base, he terrorizes immigrants and the communities they live in,” she said. “He should be focusing on keeping our country safe from real criminals and not destroying families and destroying the lives of hard working community members.
“As he did before, he will try to satisfy his base at the expense of immigrants that contribute to our economy and at the expense and well-being of their families and our communities.”
The president’s tweets harkin back to 2016 re-election campaign when he accused Mexico of sending rapists to the United States and pledged to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. The rhetoric was widely denounced, yet the tough anti-immigration message struck a chord with many Americans and ultimately helped carry Trump to victory.
Trump has threatened a series of increasingly drastic actions as he has tried to stem the flow of Central American migrants, which has risen dramatically despite his hardline policies. He recently dropped a threat to slap tariffs on Mexico after the country agreed to step up immigration enforcement efforts.
The “millions” referred to in Trump’s tweets referred to the more than 1 million people in the United States with final deportation orders, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain the president’s tweets.
Pew Research Center recently estimated there are about 10.5 million people in the U.S. illegally, with long term residents outnumbering recent arrivals.
Some in Trump’s administration believe that decisive shows of force — like mass arrests — serve as deterrents, sending a message to those considering making the journey to the U.S. that it’s not worth coming.
The new acting director of ICE, Mark Morgan, recently signaled a willingness to deport families during enforcement sweeps, though past Trump immigration officials hesitated over concerns about logistics and the public reaction.
U.S. officials with knowledge of the preparations say the operation wasn’t imminent; it was to begin in the coming weeks and be nationwide. But ICE officials were not aware the president would make public sensitive law enforcement plans, and it’s unclear whether the operation now will go off as planned.
There are routine nationwide enforcement sweeps, usually about two per year, requiring months of planning and are time consuming to pull off. Officers have addresses that are often wrong and don’t have search warrants. Immigrants are not required to open their doors, and increasingly they don’t. Officers generally capture about 30% of targets.
Plus, ICE needs travel paperwork from a home country to deport someone, so immigrants often end up detained at least temporarily waiting for a deportation flight. The adult population of detainees was 53,141 as of June 8, though the agency is only budgeted for 45,000. There were 1,662 in family detention, also at capacity, and one of the family detention centers is currently housing single adults.
Also, publicizing law enforcement operations can jeopardize officer safety and tip off potential deportees.
When Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf learned of an operation in Northern California and warned the immigrant community, Trump railed against the disclosure. He suggested then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions look into prosecuting her for obstruction of justice. And the head of ICE at the time, Thomas Homan, said his agency could have arrested more people had she not warned them, calling it an “irresponsible decision.”
Immigrant advocacy groups across the country are already getting terrified phone calls from people worried about raids.
“People are always on edge,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the Houston advocacy group FIEL. “This obviously reinforces that fear and in a lot of cases it paralyzes people when they can’t continue to live their daily lives.”
Espinosa and other immigrant advocates encourage families to have an emergency preparedness plan, including a contact to care for children if their parents are arrested and savings to pay for a bond or utility bills. He said he’s encouraging all families with a member who is in the U.S. illegally to be prepared.
The record year for deportations was in 2012, under the Obama administration, when 419,384 people were deported. Between 2009 and 2012, the Obama administration deported 1.6 million immigrants. About two million immigrants were deported during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.
The hot summer weather usually deters some people from coming. A senior Mexican official said Monday that, three weeks ago, about 4,200 migrants were arriving at the U.S. border daily. Now that number has dropped to about 2,600.
ICE did not comment on Trump’s tweets, but said in a statement it “will continue to conduct interior enforcement without exemption for those who are in violation of federal immigration law.”
This story is by Colleen Long, Jill Covin and Elliot Spagat of The Associated Press and Chris Green of the Rockford Register Star.