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Trump Claims ICE Will Deport 'Millions' in the Coming Weeks. Is That Even Possible?

The announcement likely has to do more with Trump's re-election campaign than an actual ICE operation. But that won't stop it from spreading fear through immigrant communities.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested hundreds in Florida and Puerto Rico in March of 2018.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested hundreds in Florida and Puerto Rico in March of 2018.

Around 9 p.m. on Monday night, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would begin deporting "millions" of undocumented immigrants. The pronouncement—in which Trump claimed that ICE would begin mass raids next week—was peculiar: ICE operations have never been announced in advance. According to the Washington Post, the president's tweets caught ICE agents off-guard.

Experts immediately questioned the feasibility of an operation to remove millions of people. In the entire year of 2012—the year that holds the record for total ICE deportations—only 409,849 people were deported.

While the reality of such an operation remains in question, one future event is certain: On Tuesday, Trump will officially kick off his 2020 election campaign at a rally in Orlando, Florida. Commentators quickly drew a connection between Trump's tweet and his favored strategy of using anti-immigration rhetoric in his campaign's messaging.

Here are some key takeaways from Trump's announcement.

Can ICE Remove Millions of People?

Two limiting factors make it extremely unlikely that ICE could even come close to deporting millions of people this year: funding and staff numbers.

Since the beginning of 2019, ICE has been hugely overspending its detention budget. Any mass removal operation would necessarily mean more mass detention, and ICE simply does not have the money to get it done. While in the past the agency has diverted funds from other government agencies (including funding for federal disaster relief), the vast amount of additional resources ICE would require for the arrest of millions would be hard to come by without a specific grant from Congress—an unlikely proposition, considering Democrats control the House of Representatives.

There's another limiting factor: ICE has about 6,000 deportation officers nationwide. The arrest of one million undocumented immigrants would require each officer to take on more than 165 cases each. And each arrest ICE makes takes coordination: Planning normally involves weeks of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, and an arrest typically requires a team of ICE agents as well as coordination with local police. There's no way that ICE, without enormously increasing the size of its staff, could arrest even close to a million undocumented immigrants in the remaining months of 2019.

Who Would a Mass Operation Target?

Any sort of a "shock-and-awe" arrest campaign would likely target people who have been living in the country peacefully, without criminal records. In the past, ICE has prioritized targeting people who pose a threat the community, have criminal records, or could present a danger to citizens. The idea is that ICE should focus its resources on operations that keep people safe. This means that any expansion of arrests would mean going beyond undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, and would likely target families. (When acting chief Mark Morgan took over the agency in early June, he told reporters that ICE would begin to target more families for deportation.)

Moreover, there are indications that Trump dismissed the former acting ICE director, as well as his old Department of Homeland Security secretary, because the two officials had discouraged a mass arrest ICE campaign. According to the Washington Post, former acting ICE director Ron Vitello and former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen did not just question the plan's feasibility, but worried that it would result in images of children being arrested and potentially separated from their parents.

Effects on Undocumented Immigrants

Although it is near certain that ICE will not actually deport more than a million people before the end of this year, that will not stop the president's announcement from sowing fear among immigrant communities. Many of the people who could be targeted in mass arrests are members of mixed-status families, where some relatives have full legal status and others are undocumented.

In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, Cristina Jiménez, the executive director of the immigrant advocacy organization United We Dream, said, "Trump has kicked off his re-election campaign the only way he knows how: Weaponizing the government to terrorize immigrants and people of color."