Before Trump’s purge at DHS, top officials challenged plan for mass family arrests
By Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey
May 13, 2019 at 8:11 PM EDT
In the weeks before they were ousted last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top immigration enforcement official Ronald Vitiello challenged a secret White House plan to arrest thousands of parents and children in a blitz operation against migrants in 10 major U.S. cities.
According to seven current and former Department of Homeland Security officials, the administration wanted to target the crush of families that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border after the president’s failed “zero tolerance” prosecution push in early 2018. The ultimate purpose, the officials said, was a show of force to send the message that the United States was going to get tough by swiftly moving to detain and deport recent immigrants — including families with children. […]
Senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence were especially supportive of the plan, officials said, eager to execute dramatic, highly visible mass arrests that they argued would help deter the soaring influx of families. […]
ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations branch had an initial target list of 2,500 adults and children, but the plan, which remains under consideration, was viewed as a first step toward arresting as many as 10,000 migrants. The vast majority of families who have crossed the border in the past 18 months seeking asylum remain in the country, awaiting a court date or in defiance of deportation orders.
DHS officials said the objections Vitiello and Nielsen raised regarding the targeted “at large” arrests were mostly operational and logistical and not as a result of ethical concerns about arresting families an immigration judge had ordered to be deported. […]
[A]dministration officials who described the plan said Vitiello and Nielsen’s pushback was a factor in President Trump’s decision to oust both officials — particularly Vitiello.
The president has been livid about the number of unauthorized border-crossers being released into the U.S. interior, and he has repeatedly urged his aides to take the “toughest” approach possible. […]
Though Albence, a Miller ally who replaced Vitiello as acting director at ICE, was eager to execute the plan, current and former officials said, Vitiello urged caution and insisted that Nielsen should be consulted first. Her staff had concerns about how agents would handle families with children who are U.S. citizens and a lack of bed space to keep the families in detention, among other things.
Vitiello urged ICE agents to conduct more surveillance work, in particular to ensure that children would not be separated from their families in the blitz — such as in instances when a child might be at school or at a friend’s house when their parents were taken away.
Their objections reflected a deeper concern that the White House was pushing a shock-and-awe operation designed for show, but lacking in deliberative planning and research.