WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is openly and unapologetically stepping up efforts to find and deport unaccompanied children and families who arrived in the U.S. in the 2014 surge of illegal crossings.
The politically fraught endeavor is a follow-through on a nearly 2-year-old warning that those immigrants who don’t win permission to stay in the United States would be sent packing. It comes at a time when Republican presidential candidates are pushing for tougher immigration action.
Homeland Security officials have kept a wary eye on the border since more than 68,000 unaccompanied children and roughly as many people traveling as families, many fleeing widespread violence in Central America, were caught crossing the border illegally in 2014. The effort to step up enforcement against families and young immigrants started in the midst of a new wave of such immigrants.
Previous efforts to curb illegal crossings seemed to work initially, as the number of children and families making the journey dropped about 40 percent between 2014 and 2015. But that number started to rise again late last summer. At the same time, the immigration court system faced a backlog of more than 474,000 cases.
Now Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is touting government efforts to find and deport families as well as those unaccompanied children who are now adults and have been ordered home.
One of those unaccompanied children-turned-adults targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is 19-year-old Wildin David Guillen Acosta. He said he came to the United States from Honduras by bus, car and on foot after a gang member threatened his life.
‘‘He’d say, ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you,’’’ Acosta said in Spanish. ‘‘I told my mother, and she told me to come to the United States.’’
Speaking in an immigration jail in rural Georgia, Acosta said he was afraid to go home.
‘‘There’s a lot of violence, a lot of death,’’ Acosta said. ‘‘They’ll kill you for a telephone.’’
His mother, Dilsia Acosta, said her son came to the U.S. in June 2014 at the peak of the crossings. Wildin Acosta was arrested in January after a judge ruled that he should be deported.
Wildin Acosta had been going to school and working since arriving in North Carolina. He had hoped to win asylum.
Wildin Acosta’s lawyer, Evelyn Smallwood, said Friday that he may be sent back to Honduras as soon as this weekend, despite a pending request in immigration court to reopen his case. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has not told Smallwood when Wildin Acosta may be returned.
‘‘We are asking that ICE not interfere with his opportunity to have a fair hearing,’’ Smallwood said.
Since October, more than 800 immigrants who arrived as unaccompanied children have been sent home, according to ICE statistics. Other formerly unaccompanied child immigrants with pending deportation orders have been detained in preparation for deportation.
‘‘We have sent out thousands of leads on (unaccompanied children) who have final orders issued by the immigration courts, some in absentia, some in person, and we are out looking for those leads,’’ Tom Homan, ICE’s chief of enforcement and removal operations, told lawmakers in February. ‘‘I have 129 (fugitive operations) teams out there every day.’’
About 10,000 unaccompanied children have been ordered out of the country since July 2014, but roughly 87 percent of those orders were issued in absentia, according to Justice Department figures.
Johnson said the arrests should come as no surprise since he announced in late 2014 that new border crossers were an enforcement priority.
‘‘We do not have, and cannot have, an open border so we have to have enforcement at the border,’’ Johnson told The Associated Press. ‘‘Are enforcement actions against families pleasant? No, of course not. In a very personal way, I recognize that.’’
The arrests have angered immigration advocates and Democrats who argue it is dangerous to send families and young immigrants back to dangerous and impoverished Central American countries.
And the efforts come at a complicated time for Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are both vying for the Hispanic vote. Both candidates have promised to be more lenient in enforcing immigration laws than President Barack Obama.
Kevin Appleby, director of international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, said the administration is ‘‘caught in a difficult spot.’’
‘‘Before they start deporting unaccompanied children wholesale they have to fix ... the legal system so these children have a fair opportunity’’ to fight to stay in the country, Appleby said.