WASHINGTON — 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 US 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 US-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.
The sprawling operation included an effort to fast-track immigration court cases, allowing the government to obtain deportation orders against those who did not show for their hearings. The subsequent arrests would have required coordinated raids against parents with children in their homes and neighborhoods.
But Vitiello and Nielsen halted it, concerned about a lack of preparation by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the risk of public outrage, and worries that it would divert resources away from the border.
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.
The arrests were planned for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the other largest US destinations for Central American migrants.
Though some of the cities are considered ‘‘sanctuary’’ jurisdictions with police departments that do not cooperate with ICE, the plan did not single out those locations, officials said.
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 up to 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.
‘‘There was concern that it was being hastily put together, would be ineffective, and might actually backfire by misdirecting resources away from critical border emergency response operations,’’ said one DHS official, who, like others, described the plan on the condition of anonymity.
Nielsen and others also worried that a massive effort to deport parents and children would detract from the Trump administration’s stated goal of going after ‘‘criminal aliens.’’
‘‘The proposal was nowhere near ready for prime time,’’ the official said, which is why DHS senior leaders blocked the White House. ‘‘They wanted 10 cities, thousands of targets.’’
The president has been livid about the number of unauthorized border-crossers being released into the US interior, and he has repeatedly urged his aides to take the ‘‘toughest’’ approach possible.
Vitiello, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, had been on track to be the Trump administration’s first confirmed ICE director when his nomination was abruptly rescinded on April 5 without explanation.
Trump told reporters the next morning that he had opted to go in a ‘‘tougher direction,’’ without elaborating.
Nielsen was forced out two days later.
Speaking on ‘‘Fox and Friends’’ on Thursday, Vitiello’s predecessor at ICE, Tom Homan, said the agency should ‘‘do operationally what Congress has failed to do legislatively.’’
‘‘ICE needs to do a nationwide operation,’’ Homan said. ‘‘Look for family units and single adults who had their day in court or didn’t show up in court and [were] ordered removed by a federal judge.’’
Vitiello had narrowly survived a confirmation vote to advance his nomination earlier this year, and some at ICE warned that a controversial raid rounding up children would probably sink his candidacy.
They wanted to wait until his confirmation before executing the plan, arguing that it was more important for the agency to have a Senate-confirmed leader.
But the idea for the plan was conceived in September, current and formal officials said, and the pressure to carry it out continued to build as the president’s anger grew.
The Department of Justice had developed a ‘‘rocket docket’’ that prioritized the immigration cases of newly arrived families, allowing the government to secure deportation orders as soon as possible — jumping over an immigration court backlog that is nearing 900,000 cases.
DHS and White House aides had several high-level meetings about the proposal, officials said.
By January, Justice officials had obtained deportation rulings for 2,500 parents and children in 10 locations whose names were added to a target list for ICE.