President Donald Trump has begun his reelection bid by reviving a campaign promise to deport “millions of illegal aliens” from the United States, saying his administration will get to work on that goal “next week” with raids across the country.
But the president’s ambitious deportation goals have crashed, again and again, into the earthly reality of the U.S. immigration enforcement system.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is averaging approximately 7,000 deportations per month from the U.S. interior, according to the agency’s latest data. With unauthorized border crossings soaring under Trump to their highest levels in more than a decade, ICE has been facing a shortage of funds and detention beds, and experts say that a large-scale push to arrest and deport hundreds of thousands of migrants would be exorbitantly expensive and highly unlikely.
For ICE, making “at large” arrests in homes and neighborhoods — the key to chipping away at the “millions” Trump wants to expel — will require significant amounts of planning, coordination and secrecy. By telegraphing plans to begin a nationwide roundup, the president has risked undermining the effectiveness of ICE’s largest and most complex enforcement operation in years.
Trump and Mark Morgan, the acting director of ICE, talked several times in recent weeks about the operation, including as recently as this weekend. But senior White House and immigration officials did not know the president planned to announce it on Twitter, a senior White House official said Tuesday, and many felt it was detracting from the launch of the campaign. But Trump is eager to appear that he is making progress on immigration and remains fixated on the issue, advisers say.
The sensitive plan is aimed at sweeping up and deporting thousands of migrant family members in major U.S. cities who were ordered to leave the country after their cases were evaluated by immigration judges. Department of Homeland Security officials say the arrests are at the heart of their attempts to deter Central American families from making the journey north.
On Tuesday, current and former ICE officials acknowledged that Trump’s unexpected tweet had blown the cover off the plan, and they predicted that would-be deportees could scatter from known addresses in the coming days, diminishing the agency’s chances for success. Lawmakers and immigrant advocates expressed alarm and outrage at the possibility that ICE would go forward with the plan, which risks separating parents and children as agents fan out to knock on doors and make mass arrests.
ICE declined to say whether Trump’s tweets referred to a specific operation in the works, but U.S. officials acknowledged privately that they are preparing to move forward with their long-planned blitz to take thousands of families into custody.
Morgan said Tuesday on “PBS NewsHour” that he hoped immigrants facing deportation would “work with us” and “come and turn themselves in to ICE agents, and we will work with them to remove them to their countries.”
“We don’t want to have to go and track them down into the neighborhoods in the cities,” Morgan said. “We don’t want that, and I don’t want that for the families.”
Morgan said he did not think Trump’s tweet publicizing the planned arrests put immigration agents at risk because the president did not provide specifics. “I’m not concerned,” he said. “They’re professionals. They know exactly what they need to do.”
With hundreds of ICE agents deployed to the border in recent months, interior arrests have dipped. From October to December, the most recent period for which statistics are available, ICE deported 22,169 people from the U.S. interior, down 7% from the same period in 2017. About 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants are in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.
To meet the president’s goal of millions of deportations, ICE would need significantly more agents and funding. ICE’s division of enforcement and removal operations has fewer than 6,000 officers nationwide who are potentially available to carry out the kind of arrests described by the president, which would entail higher risks because they would involve knocking on doors and arresting parents and children in homes and apartments.
There is division among Trump officials about whether the roundup will make for good politics and policy. But Morgan, senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and the president support the actions, a senior White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal fissures.
Authors: NICK MIROFF, MARIA SACCHETTI, ABIGAIL HAUSLOHNER AND JOSH DAWSEY, THE WASHINGTON POST
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