WASHINGTON (AFP) – The Trump administration issued tough new orders on Tuesday (Feb 21) for a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigrants, putting nearly all of the country’s 11 million undocumented foreigners in its cross-hairs.
The orders sent shivers throughout US immigrant communities, where millions of people who have spent years building families and livelihoods in the country, most of them from Mexico and Central America, were seriously threatened with deportation for the first time in decades.
Rights groups labelled the move a “witch hunt”, warning that a threatened “mass deportation” would damage families with deep roots in the United States and hurt the economy.
But John Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who issued the new orders in two memos, said they were necessary to address a problem that has “overwhelmed” government resources.
“The surge of illegal immigration at the southern border has overwhelmed federal agencies and resources and has created a significant national security vulnerability to the United States,” he said in one of the memos.
The new rules make it easier for border patrol and immigration officers to quickly deport any illegal immigrants they find, with only a few exceptions, principally children.
The priority will remain undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, as well as anyone who has been charged or potentially faces criminal charges.
However, people deemed as low priority for deportation by the previous Barack Obama administration – generally anyone not tied to a crime – are no longer protected.
“With extremely limited exceptions, DHS will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement,” the memos said.
“All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States.”
The memos followed up on President Donald Trump’s order, made just after his Jan 20 inauguration, for authorities to crack down on illegal immigration by tightening enforcement and building a wall along the nearly 3,145 kilometre US-Mexico frontier.
In the memos Kelly ordered immediate action to begin planning the wall. He also ordered the hiring of 15,000 more officers for the Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies.
The move comes ahead of meetings this week between Kelly and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico, in which illegal immigration and border security will be key topics.
The turn in policy follows years in which the Obama administration, and the George W. Bush administration before it, sought to find a way with Congress to allow most of the long-term illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
But Trump campaigned for the White House on a promise to crack down on what he characterised as a source of widespread crime and a drag on the economy. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Trump “wanted to take the shackles off” of officials enforcing the laws.
DHS said there are more than 534,000 pending immigration cases in the courts nationwide, and that department agents have apprehended more than 93,000 people trying to sneak into the country in October and November alone.
That work “has significantly strained DHS resources,” it said.
While Spicer said Trump “has a big heart” and that policy could evolve in future beyond the DHS memos, there was no indication of what form those changes could take.
Pro-immigrant groups, already nervous after hundreds were arrested in a series of ICE raids on immigrant “sanctuary cities” two weeks ago, expressed shock and outrage.
“Secretary Kelly has unleashed an unprecedented witch hunt on millions of immigrant families,” said Angelica Salas, executive director for the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.
“These guidelines represent an unlawful, expedited process, a dragnet, to remove undocumented immigrants living and working in the US. This is a dastardly approach to a very human issue,” she said.
Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted strong legal challenges to the new policy.
“These memos confirm that the Trump administration is willing to trample on due process, human decency, the well-being of our communities, and even protections for vulnerable children, in pursuit of a hyper-aggressive mass deportation policy,” he said.