By Daniel Trotta and Richard Cowan
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities on Sunday will begin arresting at least 2,000 immigrant families eligible for deportation in a nationwide series of raids long threatened by President Donald Trump, the New York Times reported, citing former and current officials.
Trump forewarned of the planned operation in a June 17 Twitter message, but it was delayed partly because of disagreements within the administration, the Times reported on Thursday.
Immigrant advocates said the advance word of the raids could enable at least some of those targeted to evade arrest.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement it would not offer specific details related to any upcoming enforcement operations but that "all of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and - if found removable by final order - removal from the United States."
The operation would target some 2,000 families whose immigration cases had been expedited in a special court docket and resulted in deportation orders, the Times said.
By comparison, ICE typically detains about 12,000 people per month, not including Border Patrol arrests near the border.
"Two thousand people deported is not that large in the annual scheme of things," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell Law School professor specializing in immigration, pointing out that the administration of former President Barack Obama deported more than 400,000 people a year during his first term.
"On the other hand the mere fact that they are announcing these raids is sending fear among immigrants and is causing them to hide or take other actions," he said.
Facing a re-election battle next year, Trump will want to show his supporters that he is delivering on campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration, a signature policy objective of his administration.
"He's been trying to do something for months," Yale-Loehr said.
The threatened arrests come after apprehensions of migrants on the southwest border hit a 13-year high in May before easing in June as Mexico increased immigration enforcement.
Planning for the operation was rapidly changing, and final details were in flux, the Times reported.
ICE agents will carry out the operation over several days starting July 14, the newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources including two current and one former homeland security officials.
Officials told the paper that when possible, immigrant families placed under arrest will stay together in family detention centres in Texas and Pennsylvania. Some might stay in hotel rooms because of space constraints until travel papers are arranged.
The plan would also allow for the possible detention and deportation of people who were not specifically targeted.
The scope of the enforcement will likely be far less ambitious than Trump first suggested in his June 17 tweet. At the time, he signalled that officials would soon "begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States."
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top elected Democrat in the United States, called the operation "heartless" and said she was hoping that Hispanic evangelicals who helped Trump get elected in 2016 would appeal to him to call off the arrests.
"If ICE agents don't have a warrant signed by a judge, a person may refuse to open the door and let them in," Pelosi said at her weekly news conference in the U.S. Capitol, noting that even undocumented immigrants have rights under U.S. law.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said from the Senate floor that "cruelty seems to be the point of these raids."
The large numbers of immigrant families arriving at the southern border with Mexico, coupled with reports of their mistreatment, has prompted Democrats and Republicans to float several ideas for confronting what many say is a humanitarian crisis.
But with the November 2020 presidential and congressional elections coming into focus, there is sparse hope on Capitol Hill that the various immigration bills now being floated will gain any traction.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others filed a lawsuit in anticipation of the operation, asking a court to block the deportation of asylum-seeking families who missed their court dates until they at least get a hearing.
The National Immigration Law Centre has circulated "know your rights" materials in immigrant communities and on social media, providing phone numbers of lawyers and other volunteers, said Shiu-Ming Cheer, a senior staff attorney.
In Chicago, Walter Coleman, the pastor at Lincoln United Methodist Church, said his church and community activists were advising people not to answer the door to agents without a warrant and not to talk or sign any documents without a lawyer present.
About 75 young people have been knocking on doors in recent days and posting "ICE Free Zone" signs in the area while informing immigrants of their rights.
"People are fighting back," Coleman said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York, Richard Cowan in Washington, Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Toby Chopra and Rosalba O'Brien)