ICE efforts to return 'illegal' immigrants to Central America prompt protest

Helen Gym, a new member of Philadelphia City Council, speaks to those gathered for a rally outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices sponsored by groups that support immigrant rights.

A drive by federal agents to round up and deport Central Americans who entered the U.S. illegally after 2014 and have exhausted their asylum appeals is rattling immigrant communities nationwide.

Representatives from Juntos, the Latino advocacy group with offices in South Philadelphia and Norristown, say they have been fielding "countless phone calls and Facebook messages" from people in "absolute fear" of the new effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"They can't keep going after these families who are coming here as refugees," Juntos executive director Erika Almiron said Friday.

The initiative targets the tens of thousands of adults and unaccompanied children who entered America in the high profile "surges" across the U.S. southern border two summers ago, and last fall.

It was still in the planning stage when a Washington Post article revealed it two days before Christmas. Federal officials then confirmed the plan.

"This should come as no surprise," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said last week. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."

The initiative took effect Jan. 2 in three Southern states - though it has yet to result in a confirmed arrest here.

Officials want to send the post-2014 arrivals back relatively quickly, using them as high-profile examples to deter future spikes in illegal crossings.

Most of the targeted immigrants are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where rampant gang violence has been driving waves of migration.

Critics of U.S. border security say these unauthorized immigrants need to be expelled. Their advocates say they are desperate refugees who need and deserve protection.

A series of home raids under the new program netted more than 120 parents and children in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina in the first week.

The local ICE office is not currently part of the targeted enforcement operation, though that could change, according to a federal law enforcement official in Philadelphia who was not authorized to publicly discuss the program.

It is not clear how many Central Americans in the Philadelphia region could be targets if the operation were to be extended here.

But the local fears are palpable, with fresh rumors and reports on social media almost everyday.

In some cases it may be that normal, day-to-day enforcement-and-removal operations have been mistakenly interpreted as part of the new sweep.

Demanding that the Obama administration halt the program, about a dozen local advocates, religious leaders, and newly elected City Council member Helen Gym rallied Friday outside the ICE-Philadelphia office at 16th and Callowhill Streets.

Gym denounced what she called "abusive deportation practices," which, she said, "violate human rights."

Immigrants "come seeking help," she said. "For this nation, then, not only to turn its back, but to begin a process of terrorizing those families by sending them back is unimaginable."

She said the crisis in Central America "demands compassion and sensible policy, not midnight raids [which] incite terror and fear in immigrant communities."

On Monday, the homeland security secretary defended the program.

"Our borders are not open to illegal migration," Johnson said. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back."

Since the summer of 2014, he said, Central Americans who entered illegally have been repatriated at a rate of about 14 airplane loads a week. The new operation, he said, is designed to send them back "at a greater rate."

Johnson said his agency's public messaging campaign, which aims to educate Central Americans "about the dangerous realities of the journey" north, "will also highlight the recent enforcement operations" for deterrent effect.

But outraged advocates say it is a mistake to think that deporting people back to the violence they fled will somehow stop others from seeking to escape.

"When people from Central America are trying to survive," said Juntos' Almiron, there are no enforcement operations "that will stop them from trying to protect their children. The way we empathize with other refugees, we need to empathize with them as well."

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

@MichaelMatza1