Central American migrants wait for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

Earlier this week, President Trump made a dramatic claim, saying that "next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

The idea was immediately greeted with a combination of outrage and derision. After all, it isn’t as though Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were just sitting around on their hands up until now and had the extra capacity to round up, house, then deport millions of people. Indeed, at the time, even some administration officials suggested that this was going to be logistically very challenging.

Now we’re learning that the mass arrests are, indeed, set to begin, but only of thousands, not of millions. The Post reports:

President Trump has directed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to conduct a mass roundup of migrant families that have received deportation orders, an operation that is likely to begin with predawn raids in major U.S. cities on Sunday, according to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the plans.

The “family op,” as it is referred to at ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, is slated to target up to 2,000 families facing deportation orders in as many as 10 U.S. cities, including Houston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and other major immigration destinations, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the law enforcement operation.

Here’s the thing: There is already a pile of evidence that this is really all about Trump’s reelection campaign.

For instance, by miraculous coincidence, Trump initially announced the mass arrests just before his campaign kickoff rally. Not only that, but the act of announcing it was itself suspect: As Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti reported when word of the planned arrests first surfaced, “publicizing a future law enforcement operation is unheard of at ICE.”

So, Trump’s announcement of the operation could actually undermine efforts to round up migrants, yet he did it anyway, just before his reelection rally. Indeed, as the new Post report indicates, even some inside the enforcement agencies think this is political:

Some within DHS and ICE say the president appears to be using the operation for political purposes as he begins his reelection bid.

And there are still more indications that this is a political operation. The Post report also includes this:

ICE agents have limited intelligence on the locations of the families with court-ordered deportations beyond their last known addresses. But White House and ICE officials believe agents will be able to make many “collateral arrests” by finding foreigners living in the country illegally at or near the target locations.

This means that agents are going to have a tough time finding some of the people they’re hoping to arrest — but that’s okay, because they’ll be able to pick up other undocumented immigrants they come across along the way.

Meanwhile, acting DHS chief Kevin McAleenan has privately argued for a much smaller operation that would “detain a group of about 150 families that were provided with attorneys but dropped out of the legal process and absconded," as The Post reports. That’s because he fears the following:

McAleenan has warned that an indiscriminate operation to arrest migrants in their homes and at work sites risks separating children from their parents in cases where the children are at day care, summer camp or friend’s houses.

It’s plainly obvious what’s going on here. Some inside the administration (McAleenan) fear that this operation could result in horrific imagery of more child separations, and want it scaled back.

But someone else inside the administration wants it to go forward — as long as lots of undocumented immigrants are picked up, whoever they are, the boss will be happy. And this someone else knows the boss will be happy, because he sees things very much the way the boss does.

If you guessed that this person’s initials are S.M., you win a free Plum Line T-shirt.

We don’t mean to make light of this. The humanitarian consequences could be awful. But at the same time, the absurdities here are really glaring. It’s as if nobody is even trying to disguise the degree to which this is all a show for Trump’s benefit.

John Sandweg, who was acting director of ICE under President Barack Obama, told us that it’s impossible to say right now whose vision of the raids is going to prevail — whether it will be McAleenan’s more limited targeting, or the much broader one that Trump seems to want.

If it’s the more limited operation, Sandweg said, it might have some law enforcement justification, since it involves families who were given access to attorneys but didn’t turn up at hearings anyway.

"But if its the second, broader Trump version, it has very limited operational value,” Sandweg told us. “You’re draining tremendous resources away from the apprehension of dangerous criminals, and from the current humanitarian crisis at the border.”

“This is a very time- and labor-intensive operation,” Sandweg continued. “You have to send a lot of agents, and that requires a lot of planning. You’re pulling from something in order to do this. The way they are talking about this publicly strongly suggests that it’s of a political nature."

Of course, this all raises another question entirely: Why does Trump think this will politically benefit him in the first place?

Trump himself recently provided the answer to that question. Asked if he planned to reach out to swing voters to win reelection, he said: “I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that."

Clearly, he meant it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s latest immigration threat is yet another half-cooked plan

Greg Sargent: Trump’s threat of mass arrests stinks of weakness and failure

Paul Waldman: Trump has another moment right out of ‘1984’

Enrique Acevedo: Trump is firing up another anti-immigrant campaign. This time, immigrants are ready.

Paul Waldman: Trump: I can win reelection with just my base