SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to launch a new large-scale operation, maybe as early as tomorrow. ICE agents will begin to arrest and deport thousands of migrant families that have been ordered for removal by a court. Ahead of that operation, NPR's correspondent John Burnett sat down for a conversation with the acting ICE director, Mark Morgan.
John is in our studios. John, thanks so much for being with us.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good to be here, Scott.
SIMON: A lot about this operation, I gather he didn't want to share, but what are some of the details we already know?
BURNETT: Well, what we've heard so far is that ICE operations will launch in 10 U.S. cities, including New York, LA, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco. They'll target people, primarily recently arrived families, that didn't show up for their hearings in immigration court and were ordered removed. As you said, it could start as early as tomorrow morning. ICE is also using a softer tactic, trying to convince these targets to surrender and accept voluntary departure, and they would have 30 days to leave.
SIMON: How unusual is an operation like this?
BURNETT: Well, usually, ICE is prioritizing unauthorized immigrants who have criminal charges. These are single adults who are often apprehended from jails or from courtrooms, a sort of secure apprehension environment for ICE, and that's what they like. What's different is these are families - these are mothers and dads and their kids - who have come across the border and committed no crime other than illegal entry. So ICE agents will be, presumably, going into these neighborhoods to round up families, and that presents unique challenges. And that's what I asked Morgan about.
Without getting into specifics of how you're going to round up families, I've ridden with your agents in the Dallas area of operations, and it was really eye-opening. And we saw how time-consuming and labor-intensive it was to knock on doors when many folks weren't there. Now the president has tweeted. Have you lost the element of surprise?
MARK MORGAN: No, 'cause you've got to remember - all these individuals know every single day they're here illegally. They're always watching. Anytime a car goes by, they're always in a heightened state of awareness. So again, the tweet was just a general tweet. There's no operational, specific elements that we're giving out.
But however, you do make kind of the case for me that I've been trying to make - is this is difficult, and this is exactly why we don't want people to be allowed into the interior United States. I keep saying, I don't want to send agents to people's homes. I don't want to. I don't want to send to their workplace. I don't want to send them anywhere into the interior...
BURNETT: Why not?
MORGAN: Because that - you - whenever you do that and you send agents out there, there's always a chance - right? - for something to go wrong.
SIMON: Then why is he taking the chance?
BURNETT: Well, it's always been about deterrence with the Trump administration. That's what they've been trying to do all along with his aggressive immigration policies. They want to get the message back to Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala so people will stop coming. And there are hundreds of thousands of people in the country now whose asylum claims have been rejected, and they've been ordered deported. But ICE agents have not been prioritizing them up to now. They're about to start.
Here's Morgan again.
MORGAN: If you're here in violation of federal immigration law, regardless of your demographic, there should be consequences, and that rule of law should be enforced. What I see is this - a continuation, maybe a little bit of an expansion, with respect to all demographics, including families. So we need to send a message that says, once you've had due process and you've had a order of removal by a judge, then there should be consequences. The rule of law should be applied.
BURNETT: I should add - there are immigration lawyers who say that this fast-track process of adjudication distorts due process because these families, these applicants don't get proper notice, and their cases can be railroaded.
SIMON: John, why is the director talking to reporters?
BURNETT: You know, I was thinking back to the policy of zero tolerance that led to families being separated at the border. And when the administration announced that more than a year ago, it was a fait accompli. On the front end, they didn't even try to defend it or explain it. It was a disaster. There was an international outcry, condemnation from Democrats and Republicans and even the president's own family.
This time around, with this family roundup, Morgan has been talking to the media all week to try and convince the public that ICE is doing the right thing. And so I guess, you know, once the families are being let out of their apartments and their houses and taken into custody next week, we'll see how it plays with the public.
I asked Morgan about that.
You know, you all face a lot of fire - you know, abolish ICE and all that. What about the optics of, if your agents are going out and arresting mothers and children now? I mean, before, it was, you know, single criminal immigrants - adults - very, very different class.
MORGAN: So what I would say is, as a law enforcement professional, as the acting director of ICE, my duty is not to look at the political optics or the will of the American people. That's for the politicians to decide. What the American people should want us to do as law enforcement officials is to enforce the rule of law and maintain the integrity of that system.
SIMON: John, what happens to families after they're taken into custody?
BURNETT: Well, ICE says they've had their day in court now. So it will deport them as fast as possible back to their countries in Central America.
SIMON: NPR's John Burnett. Thanks so much.
BURNETT: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.