At least five families of Central American origin in the Atlanta, Georgia area were detained Saturday, a move that immigration advocates see as the beginning of an effort by U.S. authorities to deport thousands of people without immigration status.
“We believe this is the beginning, above all if officials went through the trouble of carrying out the detentions on a Saturday,” Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, told Notimex.
Nicholls added that relatives did not know the whereabouts of their family members. Nicholls told the Los Angeles Times that they believed some of those recently detained were being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at their field office in Atlanta but that the office was an inappropriate place for children to be held.
Some have already been flown to detention centers in Texas, including 30-year-old Ana Lizet Mejia along with her nine-year-old son, William.
Her aunt, Joana Gutierrez, alleges that ICE officials entered her home without a warrant, presenting a warrant for a man Gutierrez claims she did not know. The officials then searched her home and detained Mejia and her son.
"They came in unmarked trucks; they said they had a paper, that they were seeking a black person, I told them there was no one like that, but they went in and removed the children, my niece, my husband, and did not care that the children were crying. What they did was an abuse,” said Gutierrez.
She added that she fears for her niece's life should she be deported to Honduras.
"His life is in danger because she facing threats after she went to the police to report the death of her brother," added Gutierrez.
Honduras, along with other Central American countries, is experiencing an explosion of violent crime, largely due to impunity and the collaboration between state security officials and organized crime groups. Violence in Honduras also spiked after a U.S.-backed coup in 2009 ousted the leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, from power.
Many families have been forced to flee to the United States to escape the rampant violence.
Anti-immigration politicians in the U.S. say these families are economic migrants and have broken the law by migrating to the U.S. without status. But, not unlike the Syrian families fleeing the war in their homeland, these Central Americn families feel they have no choice but to attempt the perilous journey.
The United Nations has asked U.S. officials to treat the newcomers as refugees and not to deport them.
The Washington Post revealed in a December 2015 article that U.S. immigration officials intended to engage in mass deportations of Central American migrants starting in January. The plan was later confirmed by the Salvadorian government.
Liduvina Magarin, deputy minister for Salvadorans Abroad, told AFP that the country had been informed by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador of the mass deportation plan.
“They have notified us of the decision made by the higher authorities to begin the deportation of family units and unaccompanied children who have already completed the due process and have final deportation order,” said Magarin.
The operation is a nationwide campaign that will be carried out by ICE agents, in which officials will carry out a series of raids on homes that would target hundreds of families for deportation.
The decision to raid homes to conduct deportations, unprecedented in modern U.S. history, is proving to be highly controversial.
Not even U.S. President Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, attempted raids on homes, choosing to raid workplaces instead.
According to The Washington Post, the decision to begin mass deportations was motivated by a recent court ruling in the U.S. that ordered the Department of Homeland Security to begin releasing families housed in detention centers.
The raid of homes and the deportation of families fleeing violence is likely to generate controversy especially in an election year.
Bernie Sanders, the leftist senator from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, heavily criticized the plan.
"We need to take steps to protect children and families seeking refuge here, not cast them out,” said Sanders in a statement.
Leading Democratic Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton had a much more moderate response, with a spokesperson saying only that Clinton had “real concerns.”