The US Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday issued sweeping new rules for border security and deportations as part of President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on illegal immigration.
In a pair of memorandums, homeland security secretary John Kelly detailed steps “designed to stem illegal immigration and facilitate the detection, apprehension, detention and removal of aliens who have no lawful basis to enter or remain in the United States”.
Mr Kelly directed subordinates to start planning construction of a wall along the border with Mexico; hire 10,000 new immigration agents plus 5,000 additional border control officers; and “surge the deployment of immigration judges and asylum officers”.
The moves continue Mr Trump’s breakneck effort to demonstrate early progress towards fulfilling the campaign promises that fuelled his election victory.
The announced measures represent a break with the Obama administration’s approach to illegal immigration, which prioritised the removal of aliens convicted of serious crimes. Mr Trump instead will expel aliens convicted or charged with “any criminal offence” or those engaged in any misrepresentation before a government agency, including the abuse of public benefits, according to the memos.
“The department no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Mr Kelly wrote.
Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, denied that the administration intends mass deportations. While anyone present in the country without authorisation risks being expelled at any time, the new policy aims first to deal with nearly 1m undocumented individuals with criminal records, he said.
“We have an obligation to make sure the people in our country are here legally,” Mr Spicer said. “At some point, laws are laws.”
For now, individuals who came to the US as children — the so-called “Dreamers” — are exempt from the new measures, Mr Spicer said.
Nearly 750,000 people have been protected from deportation and granted work permits under a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama.
While proceeding with the hiring of thousands of additional border agents, the DHS will also resume a policy that the Obama administration had de-emphasised of deputising local law enforcement officers to handle immigration matters. Over an almost 10-year period, that programme had identified more than 402,000 individuals eligible for deportation, the document said.
The immigration actions come as the population of illegal immigrants remains at about 11m, down from a peak of 12.2m in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
Still, the DHS documents said illegal immigration had “overwhelmed federal agencies” and created a national security problem for the US. The number of immigrants apprehended trying to cross into the US from Mexico last October and November rose more than 42 per cent from the same period a year earlier, Mr Kelly said.
The nation’s immigration courts face a record backlog of 534,000 cases of would-be immigrants facing potential deportation, more than three times the 2004 number, according to the DHS.
Mr Kelly directed the creation of a new DHS office to assist “victims of crimes committed by removable aliens”.
Mr Trump has ordered federal agencies to “quantify all sources of direct and indirect federal aid or assistance to the government of Mexico”, a possible precursor to demonstrating leverage in the president’s quest to have Mexico pay for the wall’s construction.
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