Mark Morgan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in April. Morgan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, plans to step up deportation efforts for families that have disobeyed court orders to leave the country. (Cliff Owen/AP)

The Trump administration’s new immigration enforcement chief said Tuesday that he is preparing to increase arrests and deportations of migrant families living illegally in the U.S. interior, promising the kind of more aggressive approach the White House has been seeking.

Mark Morgan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters that his agency is preparing to move forward with a plan — stalled under his predecessor — that will target thousands of families that have disobeyed court orders to leave the country.

“Our next challenge is going to be interior enforcement,” Morgan said. “We will be going after individuals who have gone through due process and who have received final orders of deportation.

“That will include families,” Morgan said, adding that ICE agents will deport them “with compassion and humanity.”

ICE officials familiar with the plans, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the agency does not have an imminent operation planned. But the officials said that Morgan is eager to move forward and that preparations are underway.

Morgan, a former FBI official and Border Patrol chief who impressed Trump through tough-talking media appearances, was hired to lead ICE at a time when the president has been repeatedly angered and dismayed at the government’s inability to stem record numbers of illegal crossings by Central American families.


An ICE officer monitors a demonstration outside the agency’s San Francisco office in June 2018. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Trump administration formulated a plan this year to deter those families through increased arrests and deportations. The Justice Department fast-tracked their cases to obtain thousands of removal orders — many of which were issued when parents failed to appear in court — then referred the families to ICE for arrest and deportation.

ICE drew up a strategy for carrying out those orders in 10 large U.S. cities, but then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello balked, wanting more preparation.

The move frustrated senior Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller. Nielsen and Vitiello were then ousted in April.

Speaking to reporters at ICE headquarters in Washington on Tuesday, Morgan said the lack of interior enforcement against families has itself become a “pull factor” for unauthorized migration, especially as smuggling guides spread word in Central America that the best way to avoid deportation from the United States is to travel with a child.

More than 100,000 unauthorized migrants have crossed the border in each of the past three months, and U.S. border agents are now detaining an average of 4,500 people per day, the highest level in more than a decade. More than 60 percent of those who are taken into custody are families or underage minors, a record portion.

If migrants state a fear of returning to their home countries, they cannot be swiftly deported, and U.S. courts have set 20 days as the maximum time a child can be held in immigration detention. As a result, the overwhelming majority of families who cross the border are briefly held, released and told to appear at a court date well in the future, giving them a chance to live and work in the United States for years while their claims are processed.

And if their asylum petitions are denied, the chance that those parents and children will be tracked down and arrested remains relatively low.

According to Homeland Security officials, 98 percent of the parents and children who crossed the Mexico border without authorization in 2017 remain in the United States, including thousands ordered deported after skipping out on asylum hearings and court appointments.

Conducting at-large arrests of families with children in major U.S. cities would be a sensitive operation for ICE agents, especially after the Trump administration’s failed “zero tolerance” push last year that separated at least 2,700 children from their parents.

Morgan said his agency’s job is to enforce judicial orders and to uphold the law, not to make decisions about who deserves to stay or who should face deportation.

“If Congress sees the laws as something that is not adequate or appropriate, then Congress should change those laws,” he said.

Morgan, who started in his role last week, also has warned that ICE investigators are detecting a growing number of children arriving with adults who are not their biological parents. The agency has started a pilot program to administer DNA tests when authorities suspect an adult is falsely claiming parentage.

Among the 1,126 families investigated since mid-April, agents determined 206 of them had made false claims, Morgan said. ICE referred 399 cases to prosecutors, and 315 of those were accepted, according to the agency’s latest data.

ICE officials said they could not provide data on the number of those claims that involved children traveling with an unrelated adult or those arriving with relatives such as uncles, stepparents or other caregivers who are known to the children but are not a biological parent.