Flyers in English and Spanish are shown stacked at a nearby restaurant before immigration advocates gather them and hand them out, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in the Little Havana neighborhood in Miami. The Trump administration is moving forward with a nationwide immigration enforcement operation this weekend targeting migrant families. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Friday portrayed an upcoming national operation targeting immigrant families as a routine effort that could capture about 200 people and detain them in hotels before they are deported.

Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made his comments to The Associated Press as President Donald Trump said the nationwide deportation sweep will begin this weekend.

“It starts on Sunday and they’re going to take people out and they’re going to bring them back to their countries or they’re going to take criminals out, put them in prison, or put them in prison in the countries they came from. We are focused on criminals as much as we can before we do anything else,” Trump said.

The operation will target people with final deportation orders in 10 major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Miami, and predominantly focus on Central American families who have arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico in unprecedented numbers.

The operation further inflamed the political debate over immigration as Trump appeals to his base with a pledge to crack down on migrants and Democrats cast the president and his administration as inhumane for going after families.

The reality is that the operation is similar to one in 2016 under President Barack Obama and another in 2017 under Trump. The Obama-era operation resulted in about 10% of those targeted being arrested, and the Trump effort had a lower arrest rate, Albence said.

That means the operation, targeting 2,000 people, could yield about 200 arrests based on previous crackdowns. Trump has said on Twitter that his agents plan to arrest millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

“This family operation is nothing new,” Albence told the AP. “It’s part of our day-to-day operations.”

It is highly unusual to announce an enforcement sting before it begins. The president postponed the effort once before after a phone call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but immigration officials said it was also due in part to law enforcement concerns over officer safety because details had leaked.

But they’re pressing ahead with this one, even though the president and other administration officials have discussed the long-planned family operation for weeks.

“Nothing to be secret about,” Trump said. “If the word gets out, it gets out because hundreds of people know about it.”

The family operation will focus on 10 court dockets with large numbers of families that have arrived recently and been ordered to leave the country, but that doesn’t mean arrests will limited to those areas, Albence said. Authorities will go where their investigations lead, even if it’s five states away.

The operation will target entire families that have been ordered removed, but some family may be separated if some members are in the country legally. Albence gave a hypothetical example of a father and child in the U.S. illegally but a mother who isn’t

“If the mother wants to return voluntarily on her own with the family, she’ll have an opportunity to do so,” he said.

Families will be temporarily housed in hotels until they can be transferred to a detention center or deported, Albence said.

That has prompted backlash from hotel chains that don’t want anything to do with detained families and ICE agents in their rooms and hallways. Marriott said it would not allow ICE to use its hotels for holding immigrants.

Albence said if ICE runs out of space, it may be forced to separate some family members. The government is not allowed to detain family members together in traditional jails.

“If hotels or other places do not want to allow us to utilize that, it’s almost forcing us into a situation where we’re going to have to take one of the parents and put them in custody and separate them from the rest of their families,” he said.

Meanwhile, activists ramped up efforts to prepare by bolstering know-your-rights pocket guides, circulating information about hotlines and planning public demonstrations. Vigils outside of detention centers and hundreds of other locations nationwide were set for Friday evening, to be followed by protests Saturday in Miami and Chicago.


Spagat reported from San Diego.

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