A nationwide immigration enforcement operation targeting migrant families might begin this weekend, according to two administration officials and others, and Baltimore-area immigrant activists said they are gearing up for the second time in two months to help ensure people’s rights.
The operation follows Republican President Donald Trump’s tweet in June that the United States will deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants, and would target people with final deportation orders, including families whose immigration cases were fast-tracked by judges in 10 major cities, including Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“From everything we’ve heard, we have no reason to believe we won’t see action in the overall Baltimore area,” said Howard County immigration attorney and advocate Becca Niburg.
“We are preparing for that to happen in Baltimore. We hope all counties are preparing a plan,” said Niburg, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security supervisor who oversaw immigration officers.
The Associated Press reported that the sweep remains in flux and could begin this weekend or later, according to two administration officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The earlier operation was canceled after a phone call between Trump and Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while lawmakers worked to pass a $4.6 billion border aid package. Plus, details about it had leaked and authorities worried about the safety of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
On July 2, Democratic Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison declared their support for the city’s immigrant population and introduced a police department policy prohibiting officers from aiding federal immigration officials in civil investigations.
“We are not going to be cooperating with ICE on any level,” Young said at the time.
Police departments around the Baltimore area said Thursday that the federal government had not notified them of any planned activity.
“I would imagine maybe they [ICE officers] are still figuring out where they will go,” Niburg said. “They may just be gathering additional information. They may literally not know where they’re going until Saturday.”
Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, the director of Baltimore’s immigrant affairs office, said the city is continuing to share information about people’s rights when dealing with immigration officers and about a city fund that provides lawyers to people facing deportation.
“We are essentially preparing every weekend,” she said.
ICE, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, said in an email Thursday to The Baltimore Sun that it was prevented for security reasons from offering “specific details related to ongoing enforcement operations before the conclusion of those actions.”
It said the agency “prioritizes the arrest and removal of unlawfully present aliens who have received criminal convictions, have pending criminal charges, are determined to be a national security or public safety threat or are an immigration fugitive.”
Activists are circulating information about hotlines for immigrants to call and bolstering know-your-rights training.
Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she is hoping the raids won’t split families, and she asked evangelical Christians to weigh in with the president.
“The concern is that you gain more numbers by taking action on families,” said Hector Garcia, executive director of Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, a Howard County-based nonprofit organization.
“If ICE has a certain goal of a number of people that the present administration would like to report, one way to go about that is bringing in families, because now you’re talking about three, four or five people,” Garcia said. “However, the children might be American citizens. They might have been born here.”
Lights for Liberty, a human rights group, planned to hold vigils Friday night on behalf of immigrant families around the country, including in the Baltimore area.
Owing partly to its location in the densely populated Washington-New York corridor and a reputation among immigrants for being affordable, Baltimore is a landing spot for many families fleeing strife in their home countries or seeking better job opportunities or education in the United States.
The ICE operation is similar to ones conducted regularly since 2003 that often produce hundreds of arrests. It is slightly unusual to target families, as opposed to immigrants with criminal histories, but not unprecedented. The Obama and Trump administrations have targeted families in previous operations.
But the latest operation is notable because of the politics swirling around it.
“President Trump’s continued threat of ICE raids is a cruel tactic aimed at stoking fear,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.
Other members of the state’s predominantly Democratic congressional delegation said the president’s attention was misplaced.
“President Trump needs to refocus his attention, and our limited immigration enforcement resources, on removing violent criminals from our communities,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin.
And U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, called on Trump to “abandon his reckless immigration policy” and work with Congress on a "comprehensive immigration plan that ensures families remain together.”
The administration has been straining to manage a border crisis, and some officials believe shows of force in deporting families would deter others migrants from coming. But others have criticized any move that draws resources away from the U.S.-Mexico border at a time when the Border Patrol is detaining four times the number of people it can hold. Also, a watchdog report found filthy, potentially dangerous conditions at some stations.