(CNN) — Immigration authorities have begun conducting raids, a senior administration official said Sunday, in an operation expected to target about 2,000 undocumented immigrants ordered by courts to be removed from the country.
The raids, which will focus on recent arrivals to the country, are slated for Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco, a senior immigration official said. New Orleans is also on the list, but the city tweeted last week that US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said it would suspend operations through the weekend in areas hit by Tropical Storm Barry.
Acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Ken Cuccinelli took issue with referring to the targets of the raids as undocumented.
“They’re not undocumented. They’ve got a court order on a piece of paper — federal order — that says they’ve gotten due process, and (there are) over a million people with removal orders. That’s the pool that ICE is drawing from,” he told CNN.
ICE will not comment on operational details of the raids, Cuccinelli said, adding that the priority will be apprehending violent criminals and aggravated felons. ICE agents are not “utilizing” allegations of crossing the border illegally, a misdemeanor, as cause for arrest in the raids, he said.
Asked if children would be separated from their parents, Cuccinelli said that information constituted an operational detail. But he did say families are among the 1 million people facing removal orders.
News of the raids has left many undocumented immigrants frightened. They’ve been stocking up on groceries and making plans to stay in their homes with the lights off and the blinds down. Some are staying home from work. Others are posting signs inside their homes reminding them what to do if ICE agents show up. Unsure of where to turn, they’re flooding hotlines with calls.
Cuccinelli characterized the raids as normal ICE business and pointed to statistics showing ICE has deported fewer people under President Donald Trump than it did under President Barack Obama.
“This is their job every day. We’ve got compassionate, loyal ICE agents who are just doing their job,” he said. “It shows you how far we’ve fallen in that it’s become news that they would actually go deport people who have removal orders.”
ICE had planned to arrest and deport families with court-ordered removals in late June, according to the senior immigration official, but Trump delayed the raids to give Congress time to “work out a solution” on what he said were asylum and loophole problems with the country’s immigration policy.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection who was acting ICE director at the time, said the raids were postponed because operations details had been leaked. Former acting ICE director John Sandweg also expressed concern.
“You never want the target to know you’re coming. You want that element of surprise because it keeps you safe,” he said. “From an effective perspective, that’s why you don’t announce these things.”
While Trump has repeatedly tweeted about the impending operation, he hasn’t jeopardized officer safety, Cuccinelli said, explaining that the situation in June was different than what is happening now.
“The level of detail in the information that came out publicly (last month) was way beyond these general comments the President is making,” he said.
In February, ICE sent around 2,000 letters to families who already had received final orders of removal by judges in absentia, asking them to self-report to ICE offices by March. The upcoming operation is expected to target approximately 2,000 people, the senior immigration official said.
Despite reports of overcrowding at some ICE detention facilities along the southern border, Cuccinelli said ICE has made preparations in anticipation of the raids.
“ICE plans these things superbly,” he said.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics, 256,085 people were deported in fiscal year 2018, up from 226,119 removals in fiscal year 2017.