Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly officially unleashed federal agents this week to begin arresting and deporting more illegal immigrants, unshackling the handcuffs the Obama administration had imposed and putting millions of people in the country without authorization at risk.
Officials waved aside immigrant rights groups’ warnings of quick mass deportations and said the biggest changes, including making illegal immigrants wait in Mexico for their cases to be decided, will take time.
But the gist of the changes, laid out in two memos from Mr. Kelly, is to push immigration enforcement, which under President Obama had been mostly confined to the border region, south into Mexico and north to cover the interior of the U.S.
That will likely change the risk calculations for immigrants in the country illegally, those considering making the journey north and Mexican authorities who often turn a blind eye or even aid the migrants along the way.
Dreamers, the young adult illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and who have kept clean legal records, are still generally exempted from deportations, as they were under Mr. Obama.
But Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will no longer be denied permission to pursue other illegal immigrants, as they complained they were under Mr. Obama.
“For so long, [agents] had their hands cuffed behind them,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “What we’ve done is to make sure that they have the ability and the guidance and the resources to do what their mission is, and that’s it, plain and simple.”
The memos carry out President Trump’s Jan. 25 executive orders on interior and border enforcement.
That includes setting the groundwork for Mr. Trump’s border wall, maintaining more detention beds to hold illegal immigrants, adding 5,000 agents to the Border Patrol, adding 10,000 agents to ICE — the tripling of the “deportation force” that Mr. Trump promised during the campaign — and hiring 500 more officers for the Air and Marine operations at Customs and Border Protection.
Funding for those moves will depend on Congress.
But the memos also make a series of moves that don’t require approval: kick-starting the 287(g) program that enlists willing local police and sheriff’s departments to help enforce immigration law, keeping a public list of sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate, eliminating an office Mr. Obama had set up to act as an advocacy for illegal immigrants within the Homeland Security Department and ending the catch-and-release policy that let unauthorized migrants go free and blend into the population.
Mr. Kelly also revoked the Obama administration’s stricter set of priorities for deportation, which required felony convictions or multiple misdemeanors, and replaced them with a broader set of priorities that targets anyone arrested for a crime, as well as those convicted.
Under Mr. Obama, less than 20 percent of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country were likely to be targets for deportation. Officials didn’t provide an updated estimate Tuesday, but given the way the memos are drafted, millions of additional people could be at risk.
“No matter how much they deny it, it is clear that the White House is setting in motion their mass deportation plan, directing immigration agents to round up and quickly deport anyone who is undocumented,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Immigrant rights groups, who succeeded in pressuring Mr. Obama to relax enforcement during his administration, had become accustomed to the rules. They were incensed by Mr. Trump’s changes.
“These directives from President Trump are tearing fathers, mothers and their children away from each other,” said CASA, a Hispanic advocacy group in Maryland. “They are affecting American-born children and even permanent legal residents. This goes against America’s values.”
Groups promised to step up their resistance efforts and said they would encourage more localities to become sanctuaries, shielding illegal immigrants from detection by federal agents.
Homeland Security, though, is poised to become much more aggressive against sanctuaries. On Tuesday, the department released details of an illegal immigrant MS-13 gang member with a criminal record who was released from jail in New York City, despite an active request from ICE agents that he be held for pickup.
“This man is, by his own admission, a member of a violent street gang, and he was released back into the community,” said Thomas R. Decker, field office director for enforcement and removal operations in New York. “Honoring a detainer request is not about politics; it is about keeping New York citizens safe.”
The two memos released Tuesday are watered down from draft versions leaked last week. Rather than being instructed that they “should” arrest most illegal immigrants, as stated in an earlier version, agents are now told they “may” arrest anyone they deem a priority.
The memos also do not address Mr. Trump’s “extreme vetting” policy, signed Jan. 27, which has become ensnared in court battles. An updated memo on vetting is expected this week.
Under Mr. Obama, immigration enforcement was chiefly a border matter. If migrants could sneak into the interior or even if they were caught at the border, if they were part of a class Mr. Obama deemed protected, they were given low priority and allowed to disappear into the country with millions of other illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump dramatically expands that “border” area both south and north. The policies will put pressure on Mexico to do more to stop the flow of people coming through its territory and will unleash immigration agents and prosecutors in the interior of the U.S. to arrest and deport migrants who would have been considered special classes under Mr. Obama.
But many of those details remain to be worked out.
Use of expedited removal — a swift deportation — will be expanded to cover more people. But the department will first go through a complex regulation process to figure out exactly how far it wants to go.
“We will see what happens there. We’re not going to start changing this today,” a Homeland Security official said.
Likewise, the official said authorities won’t immediately begin using a part of the memo that calls for transporting illegal immigrants caught at the Mexico border back into Mexico while they are awaiting their deportation cases. That will “happen in time,” the official said.
“This would say, ‘OK, if you want to make a claim for asylum or relief from removal or whatever that case may be, we’re going to hear your case but you’re going to wait in Mexico,’” the official said.
Officials said there is no numerical goal for total deportations, and pushed back against charges from immigrant rights advocates that mass deportations are in the offing.
“We don’t need a sense of panic necessarily in our communities here,” one department official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity. “What we’re doing is we’re simply executing the laws passed by the United States Congress.”