Christmas just got a little less merry for Central American families living in the United States illegally, with the news that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is planning a nationwide program of raids starting in January aimed at facilitating the mass deportation of people facing removal orders.
The story, first broken by The Washington Post late Wednesday night, was picked up by news services across the country on Christmas Eve. The aim of the program is to reduce the number of Central American immigrants in the country illegally — a figure that has soared in the past year as families and individuals, including unaccompanied children, flee alleged worsening crime and violence in their home countries.
Estimates suggest that in the past year, more than 100,000 families with children have crossed the southern border illegally. Many of them have been apprehended by authorities, brought before an immigration judge and denied permission to stay in the U.S. as refugees or in another capacity.
It is those families, who have been afforded due process and been ordered to leave the country, who will be the primary target of the raids, according to The Post.
The news sparked immediate protest from supporters of undocumented immigrants, and those who believe that people fleeing violence in their home counties ought to be given a safe haven in the U.S.
Politicians, like Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, also weighed in.
.@DHSgov holiday plans for raids to round up/deport Central American refugees fleeing death are wrong. We are a better nation than this.— Martin O'Malley (@MartinOMalley) December 24, 2015
While it is common to refer to people fleeing violence in Central America as refugees, as O’Malley did, the term has a specific legal meaning that includes criteria many of them simply do not meet. To be eligible for asylum, they have to demonstrate not only fear of persecution, but a special status that makes them particularly likely to be targets. In addition, they have to show that the government of their home country cannot protect them (or is responsible for the persecution in the first place).
The move by immigration officials comes at a time when debates over the issues of illegal immigration and the granting of refugee status have become particularly poisonous.
Donald Trump entered the GOP presidential race with promises to wall off the U.S. from Mexico to protect the country from people he described as murderers and rapists. When he called for a ban to prevent all Muslims from entering the country, the cries that such a ban based on religion runs counter to American values was matched by a considerable chorus of support for Trump’s plan.
One of Trump’s signature promises is that he will orchestrate the mass deportation of every person living in the U.S. illegally — a number estimated to be about 12 million. Any serious analyst who has looked at the proposal has dismissed it as impossibly intrusive and expensive, and unlikely to work. It nevertheless continues to generate cheers from thousands of people who turn up at the rallies Trump holds across the country as part of his presidential campaign.
The idea of ICE agents kicking down doors and rounding up families for a mass deportation didn’t originate with Trump, but it wouldn’t sound strange coming from his mouth. If it demonstrates anything, it’s that when it comes to dealing with the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S., the bounds of what is considered acceptable public policy have plainly shifted in a more authoritarian, Trump-like direction.