AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump officially kicks off his reelection campaign today with a rally in Orlando, so the tweet that he posted last night is perhaps no coincidence. He said that ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will begin deporting millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. And this afternoon as he left for the rally, he said that would begin very soon.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And they're going to start next week. And when people come into our country and they come in illegally, they have to go out.
CORNISH: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now. And Joel, to start, what did the president say, and what is the administration actually doing?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, on Twitter, the president is talking about targeting, quote, "millions," unquote, of immigrants for deportation. In reality, his administration tells NPR it's planning a new enforcement blitz to capture a much smaller number of migrant families who have recently arrived in the U.S. These are some of the families that we've been talking about in recent months a lot who've been coming to the border in record numbers.
Many of them were put into a so-called rocket docket, meaning that their immigration cases were put to the front of the line. And so some of those cases are already working their way through the system, and a judge has ordered these migrants to be removed from the U.S. And this blitz would target those families. The administration, I should emphasize, really wants to discourage these migrant families from coming to the U.S. to seek asylum because they're overwhelming the U.S. immigration system.
CORNISH: How many families are we talking about?
ROSE: To give you a snapshot, the administration has been tracking cases in 10 immigration courts in big cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Houston. And it's identified a little over 10,000 migrant family members who have final orders of removal, mostly in absentia, meaning that the family members did not show up for immigration court hearings, so the judge had no choice but to issue that order.
CORNISH: What are the consequences if these families, say, don't show up to court?
ROSE: Well, the Trump administration argues that these are, quote, "runaway aliens," unquote, who file phony asylum claims and then don't show up for their hearings and deliberately just disappear into the U.S. to live in the shadows. Immigrant rights advocates dispute that portrayal. They say that these migrants may not be getting the notices to show up in immigration court, or perhaps they just don't understand the process. Many of these immigrants don't even have lawyers.
Michelle Brane is with the Women's Refugee Commission, which works to protect migrant families, many of whom came to the U.S. to escape violence or extreme poverty.
MICHELLE BRANE: This is not a real solution. This isn't going to deter people from coming. We've seen this over and over again. You know, this isn't the first time that this administration has tried to discourage people from seeking protection by being cruel and tearing families apart. That didn't stop people from seeking safety. And so I really don't see why this would.
CORNISH: In the meantime, is the Trump administration prepared to start rounding up families - right? - I mean, putting them on planes back to their home countries.
ROSE: Well, ICE doesn't generally announce when they plan to do raids, so, you know, the timing and extent of this is hard to predict. But something on the scale of rounding up millions of immigrants seems pretty unlikely. People familiar with ICE say the agency just doesn't have the resources either in terms of manpower or in terms of detention beds to deport that many people all at the same time. I talked to John Sandweg, who's the former head of ICE under President Obama.
JOHN SANDWEG: My first reaction is that's just impossible - no idea logistically how ICE would ever be capable of doing that. There's no unreserved capacity over at ICE that this president's going to suddenly unleash.
ROSE: Sandweg says it would be possible to capture this smaller number of migrants who've just arrived, but he cautions that that will not be easy either. He's concerned about how these raids might be carried out because these are families who are scattered all over the country, some of them with very young children. And there's just a lot that could go wrong. What if ICE arrests a mother while the kids are outside playing or a father comes home from work and his family is just gone? You know, it's possible that this could lead to a whole new round of family separations.
CORNISH: Fundamentally, is this a change in U.S. policy?
ROSE: Well, any immigrant in the country illegally with a final order of removal has known since President Trump took office basically that they could be deported. I think what's different here is this concerted effort to really target the families who've just arrived. For the most part, they have no criminal history outside of immigration violations. And critics say that their cases were really rammed through the immigration court system without due process. That is new. But mostly immigrant advocates say this is largely bluster. They think President Trump is just trying to look tough as he prepares to kick off his reelection campaign.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thanks for your reporting.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.