The New Year was just hours old when the administration of President Barack Obama began rounding up and deporting at least 121 people, some reportedly as young as four years old, presumably back to the drug wars and violence they are fleeing in predominantly Central American countries.
The coordinated raids over the weekend focused mostly in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Monday, and constituted the first wave of mass deportations that could impact up to 15,000 people. The plan was revealed just before the Christmas holiday, which many criticized as particularly inhumane timing.
According to the advocacy organization #Not1More Deportation, in the Atlanta area starting on Saturday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents "barged into homes, even when asked for warrants at the door, removing mothers and children as young as 4 years old."
"They took away children so young they would've needed car seats in their vehicles for them," said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, in a statement released on Sunday. "The fear this causes isn’t contained to ICE. It spreads to fear of the police, of local government, especially as ICE tries to get its reach back into local institutions."
The Los Angeles Times reports that at least 11 families have been taken into custody so far in 2016. DHS says that families are being sent to what are euphemistically referred to as "ICE family residential centers" before being forced to board flights out of the United States.
Most of those targeted in the raids hail from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—where U.S. policies such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement and American-backed coup in Honduras have worsened the related crises of poverty and violence.
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Rights campaigners warn that the U.S. could be deporting people back to a violent and potentially deadly conditions. And indeed, an investigation released by the Guardian in October confirmed at least three cases in which men were murdered soon after being deported by the U.S. government to their hometowns in Honduras.
DHS Secretary Jeh Jonson on Monday sought to justify the mass evictions, which he said impact "adults and their children" who have been "issued final orders of removal."
"This should come as no surprise," said Johnson. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
But campaigners say that the focus on removing families underscores the agency's brutality.
"DHS is spending more resources hunting 9-year-olds than it does to respond to the blatant violations in its own agency," said Marisa Franco, director of the national #Not1More Campaign. "These raids are part of a pattern of abuse and intimidation woven into the fabric of the immigration enforcement agency."
"A year and a half after the President said he wished to make his immigration policy more humane, his agents are rounding up mothers and children with the intent of sending them to likely violence and possible death," Franco continued. "If there is some political calculation behind this as there usually is, it is disgusting."