President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport 2 to 3 million criminals, starting on his first day in office, is sparking a firestorm over his estimates and renewing fears that immigrants with no criminal records will be swept up in his net.
Advocates for immigrants fear Trump’s plan will be deployed as a cover to arrest immigrants and their families who came here to work and never committed any crimes. But others say federal records are clear: A recent Homeland Security report found that 1.9 million deportable criminals are in the United States and that they pose “a major threat to public safety.”
“There’s no doubt that ICE could be deporting more people than it is right now, especially from the interior,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think thank that favors immigration restrictions. “They could get ramped up pretty quickly.”
Proponents of tougher enforcement say new technology and enforcement initiatives that President Obama expanded during his tenure will make it much easier for federal officials to find and deport those with criminal records. Trump has also pledged to triple the number of federal immigration agents, who now number 6,000.
Some say that Trump’s focus on criminals is similar to Obama’s priorities, while others say Trump’s plan is starkly different.
Obama, who has deported 2.4 million immigrants in his two terms, had directed deportation agents to focus only on those with serious criminal records and recent arrivals, but Trump has said unauthorized immigrants arrested for “any crime whatsoever” could be deported.
Until last month, Obama also did not use visa sanctions to compel other countries to take back their citizens that the United States wanted to deport, forcing the release of thousands of immigrants convicted of crimes including murder, rape, and sexual assault because the Supreme Court has said officials cannot jail them forever.
Trump says he would start clamping down on such countries on his first day. Federal officials denied visas to Gambia last month. Before then, officials had denied visas to such nations only once, in 2001 to Guyana. Within months, Guyana agreed to take back people that the United States wanted to deport.
“You can’t find a more perfect example of other countries walking right over us,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for a sharp reduction in legal and illegal immigration. “If you’re a strong country, you’re not going to allow that. . . . That’s a great test about whether Trump is really going to assert America’s authority.”
Others say Trump cannot deport people quickly, pointing out that they have a right to a hearing in most cases.
“He can’t swiftly deport people without due process,” said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “He can’t simply round people up and remove them.”
But immigration arrests are also secret, making it virtually impossible to verify that the people arrested have criminal records. Immigrants are not entitled to free legal representation in immigration court, and advocates have criticized federal officials in the past for detaining and deporting people with no criminal records.
“Rushing into mass deportations means that whoever is at the wrong time and the wrong place could be deported,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “People are really terrified as to what the future holds.”
Laura Rotolo, staff counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the organization is concerned that past human rights abuses, such as injuries and deaths of immigrants in detention, will increase, along with prolonged detentions.
She said immigration courts are already backlogged, and immigrants, even if they are here without legal authorization, are entitled to due process. Many have fled violent homelands and may qualify to stay. Thousands are also the parents of US citizens.
“How are the courts going to deal with all these people? And how are you going to detain them all?” Rotolo said. “Where is the money going to come from for additional bed space? Additional judges?”
She and others said she thought Trump’s estimate of the number of criminals is inflated, and said they believe the number of criminals is closer to 1 million.
In 2013 budget records, Homeland Security said thousands of convicted criminals are released from custody every year.
“ICE has never had the capability to identify, arrest and remove all of these criminal aliens,” the records said. “This population of criminal aliens poses a major threat to public safety. A more comprehensive approach to address this threat is a priority of the secretary of Homeland Security and of Congress.”
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 43 percent of the nearly 2 million deportable criminals came here illegally, while 57 percent had green cards or another legal status before they were ordered deported.
About 11 million immigrants in the United States are in violation of civil immigration laws, including 210,000 in Massachusetts, most of whom are not criminals, according to the Pew Research Center.
Trump has also suggested that he might treat some immigrants with leniency.
In August, he said he would focus on deporting criminals first, and then — “several years” later — he would decide what to do with the illegal immigrants who remain.
On Sunday, Trump called noncriminal immigrants “terrific people.” But others say they expect Trump to stick to his script.
“He’s not going to do mass roundups of noncriminals. He’s just going to have his agents enforce the law in a routine way, which Obama stopped doing,” said Beck. “Does that mean every illegal alien is subject to deportation? The answer to that is yes.”