At the start of 2016, while much of the country was beginning a new year after celebrating the holidays with family, the good tidings were shattered for scores of migrants in an ambush by the Department of Homeland Security. In January, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) carried out raids in three states on a seemingly random selection of about 120 refugees who had recently fled from Central America.
The families were just settling into new lives, perhaps still anxious about the asylum petitions they had filed. The feds had other plans: mass deportations of recent border crossers, apparently intended as a symbolic “deterrent” to would-be migrants thinking about journeying over the border.
Legal advocates are now suing the federal government over those raids, alleging that Homeland Security and ICE violated public-records laws by refusing to disclose why and how these communities were targeted and what provisions were made, if any, to protect their human rights before the majority were abruptly sent “home” to the same countries they were seeking humanitarian protection from.
The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and private lawyers, focuses on the raids, in which “ICE agents conducted a multi-state enforcement operation, sweeping into homes across Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas” and “targeted and detained 121 people…all of whom were women and children.” They were transferred to a detention center in Dilley, Texas—which has itself been the target of legal challenges over allegations of abusive and inhumane conditions.
The raids followed the standard formula of intimidation and secrecy. ICE agents allegedly entered homes without consent. Requests to see a warrant were aggressively rebuffed. Some agents reportedly “used deception,” claiming—in a disturbing intersection of anti-immigrant and anti-black profiling—that “they were police officers looking for a suspect and showing residents a photo of an African American man.” Families were told the migrants would only be detained “for a short time to examine the women’s electronic ankle shackles.” (Often electronic body restraints are used as an alternative to full detention).
Ultimately, just 12 of the targeted families remain. Others were deported; overall, in recent months, following a surge of thousands of Central American migrants, Homeland Security has deported an estimated 800 youths who arrived unaccompanied. Terror looms in the neighborhoods of the asylum seekers who have been deemed “enforcement priorities”; these migrants had complied with the court rules and likely had valid humanitarian claims for refugee status, but were criminalized nonetheless.