Trump Administration Targets Parents in New Immigration Crackdown


The Trump administration has begun a new tactic to crack down on illegal immigration, this time arresting undocumented parents suspected of having paid to have their children ushered into the country by smugglers.

When unaccompanied children are apprehended at the border — often after having been taken there by smugglers — immigration officials initiate cases for their deportation, a process that can take months or years. In the meantime, many of those children are placed with parents or relatives who crossed earlier to establish a foothold in the United States and earn money to send back home.

Until recently, those adults have not been priorities for arrest, even if they are in the country illegally.

But in February, President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, signed a memo promising to penalize people who pay smugglers to bring their children to the United States, saying that the agency had “an obligation to ensure that those who conspire to violate our immigration laws do not do so with impunity.” This past week, Jennifer D. Elzea, the deputy press secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed that arrests had begun.

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In some cases, parents or other relatives who have taken in undocumented children may face criminal smuggling-related charges and the prospect of prison; in other cases, they will be placed in deportation proceedings along with the children. The administration said the arrests would deter families from putting children in the hands of smugglers for dangerous journeys through regions controlled by drug cartels.

Though the American authorities have long sought to arrest human smugglers, sometimes known as coyotes, they had not paid much attention to the relatives paying the smuggling fees, until now. Parents and others “who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable,” Ms. Elzea said.

The effort drew immediate criticism from immigrant advocates because it would separate families, including many that had fled violence or poverty.

It would also discourage parents from claiming custody of their children when they arrived in the United States, the advocates said. That could lead to more children being sent to juvenile immigrant detention centers, where those with no identifiable family in the United States are often held.

“It’s punishing parents for trying to save their children’s lives,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “And it’s endangering the children in the process.”

Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency would try to find other relatives to place children with before sending them to the detention centers.

The operation is the latest phase of Mr. Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement. Shortly after he was inaugurated, he rescinded guidelines put in place by President Barack Obama that sought to limit arrests to those with serious criminal convictions. Apprehensions soared 38 percent during the first three months of his presidency compared with the same period last year.

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