- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The first iteration of deportation sweeps against illegal immigrant families netted just 35 migrants — and only 18 of them were actual targets, ICE announced, portraying a slow start to an operation that had sparked a massive backlash from immigrant rights activists.

They might have snared more, but officers scuttled some planned arrests because they feared they were being “surveilled” and were worried about sparking violent outbursts, acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence said Tuesday.

He said the operation is continuing and in the early stages, with 2,100 potential targets on the list.

Still, the 35 arrests were far fewer than the “millions” President Trump promised last month when he first raised the matter on Twitter. He said it was time to get tough on migrants who came to the U.S. as part of the border surge, had their day in court and were defying deportation orders by an immigration judge.

Immigrant rights activists took to Twitter to cheer the low numbers, and Trump supporters said 35 arrests aren’t nearly what they were expecting.

Mr. Albence, while offering explanations for the slow pace, suggested it will pick up.

“This is just the beginning of the operation,” said Mr. Albence, adding that his officers will stay on the cases. “We’re patient.”

He said he doubted that Mr. Trump’s very public warnings hurt the operation because word had leaked long before.

Activists were apoplectic over the threat of deportations, and television networks devoted an exceptional amount of time to covering the looming warning of “raids” on illegal immigrants.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats told illegal immigrants to refuse to open their doors to ICE and that the administrative arrest warrants officers carry do not entitle them to enter homes or vehicles.

That was illustrated this week in Tennessee, where ICE officers tried to arrest a man driving with a 12-year-old family member. The man refused to stop, drove to a home and refused to leave his vehicle.

Neighbors rushed out to support him and brought water and gasoline to keep the man’s van running. The neighbors eventually formed a human chain to separate the ICE officer from the van, allowing the man to enter his home. The episode was captured on multiple videos.

Local police were called to the scene but did not intervene. They said they were there only to prevent an escalation.

“Even in the face of intimidation and threats from the ICE agents, the man invoked his rights and he and the child stayed in their vehicle,” the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition said.

It’s unlikely the man was part of the family sweep. He had been living in the area for many years, the coalition said. But it was emblematic of the kinds of encounters and hurdles ICE now faces.

Mr. Albence said there were instances in the illegal immigrant family deportation operation in which officers could have made arrests but felt they were being “surveilled” and didn’t want to cause an incident.

“For officer safety reasons, we discontinued the enforcement operation,” he said.

Briefing reporters by phone Tuesday, Mr. Albence bristled at the accusation that his agency was engaged in “raids.” He said ICE knows the identities of all its targets, who usually have been flagged because of criminal behavior.

Rather than raids, he said, what his agency is doing is “targeted enforcement action.”

“Calling these raids does a disservice to everybody involved in this process,” he said. “A raid brings up all sorts of emotions, conjured images of indiscriminate enforcement action.”

The targets in the case of the families came to the border as part of the migrant surge, in many instances enticed by lax U.S. policies that mandate quick release of adults who bring their children with them.

Under usual circumstances, they are given court dates years in the future, but ICE last year attempted a pilot program in 10 cities to speed up hearings.

According to Justice Department figures, some 8,000 of those cases have been completed and in 84% of them, the migrants didn’t bother to show for their hearings and were ordered deported in absentia.

ICE in February reached out to about 2,100 of them and asked them to schedule orderly deportations. Only 3% took advantage of the opportunity, leaving the rest as targets for the deportation operation.

Homeland Security officials and the Trump White House had been debating whether to pull the trigger on the deportations. Some officials were worried about the optics of enforcing the law against families, particularly after last year’s “zero tolerance” border policy backfired when it led to family separations.

Immigrant rights activists warned that families could be separated in the deportations when illegal immigrant parents are living with U.S. citizen children.

Mr. Albence said he didn’t know of any of those cases in the initial round of 35 arrests.

Of those 35, just 18 were targeted by ICE. The other 17 were what ICE calls “collateral” arrests of illegal immigrants encountered during the operations against the targeted migrants.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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