Draft memo calls for unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement, including targeting undocumented people nowhere near Mexican border.
The Trump administration considered a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 national guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, according to a draft memo obtained by the Associated Press.
The 11-page document calls for the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana. Four states that border on Mexico are included in the proposal – California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – but it also encompasses seven states contiguous to those four: Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Governors in the 11 states would have a choice regarding whether to have their guard troops participate, according to the memo, written by the US homeland security secretary, John Kelly, a retired four-star marine general.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told press on board the Marine One helicopter, on which Trump was flying to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland en route to South Carolina: “That is 100% not true. It is false. It is irresponsible to be saying this.”
Using the present tense, he added: “There is no effort at all to round up, to utilize the national guard to round up illegal immigrants.”
The Department for Homeland Security echoed this language. “The Department is not considering mobilizing the national guard,” said DHS acting press secretary Gillian Christensen in an email to the Guardian.
But Spicer would not categorically state that such a round-up was never a subject of discussion at some level in the Trump administration. “I don’t know what could potentially be out there, but I know that there is no effort to do what is potentially suggested,” he said.
Spicer added: “It is not a White House document.” The AP has made clear that the document was written by Kelly and so would originate from the Department of Homeland Security, not the White House.
While national guard personnel have been used to assist with immigration-related missions on the US-Mexico border before, they have never been used as broadly or as far north.
The memo is addressed to the then acting heads of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and US Customs and Border Protection. It would serve as guidance to implement the wide-ranging executive order on immigration and border security that Donald Trump signed on 25 January. Such memos are routinely issued to supplement executive orders.
Also dated 25 January, the draft memo says participating troops would be authorized “to perform the functions of an immigration officer in relation to the investigation, apprehension and detention of aliens in the United States”. It describes how the troops would be activated under a revived state-federal partnership program, and states that personnel would be authorized to conduct searches and identify and arrest any unauthorized immigrants.
Requests to the White House and the Department of Homeland Security for comment and a status report on the proposal were not answered.
The draft document has circulated among DHS staff over the last two weeks. As recently as Friday, staffers in several offices reported discussions were under way.
If implemented, the impact could be significant. Nearly half of the 11.1 million people residing in the US without authorization live in the 11 states, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on 2014 census data.
Use of national guard troops would greatly increase the number of immigrants targeted in one of Trump’s executive orders last month, which expanded the definition of who could be considered a criminal and therefore a potential target for deportation. That order also allows immigration agents to prioritize removing anyone who has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”.
Under current rules, even if the proposal is implemented, there would not be immediate mass deportations. Those with existing deportation orders could be sent back to their countries of origin without additional court proceedings. But deportation orders generally would be needed for most other unauthorized
The troops would not be nationalized, remaining under state control.
Spokespeople for the governors of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and New Mexico said they were unaware of the proposal, and either declined to comment or said it was premature to discuss whether they would participate. The other three states did not immediately respond to the AP.
The proposal would extend the federal-local partnership program that Barack Obama’s administration began scaling back in 2012 to address complaints that it promoted racial profiling.
The 287(g) program, which Trump included in his immigration executive order, gives local police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers the authority to assist in the detection of immigrants who are in the US illegally as a regular part of their law enforcement duties on the streets and in jails.
The draft memo also mentions other items included in Trump’s executive order, including the hiring of an additional 5,000 border agents, which needs financing from Congress, and his campaign promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico.
The signed order contained no mention of the possible use of state national guard troops.
According to the draft memo, the militarization effort would be proactive, specifically empowering guard troops to solely carry out immigration enforcement, not as an add-on the way local law enforcement is used in the program.
Allowing guard troops to operate inside non-border states also would go far beyond past deployments.
In addition to responding to natural or manmade disasters or for military protection of the population or critical infrastructure, state guard forces have been used to assist with immigration-related tasks on the US-Mexico border, including the construction of fences.
In the mid-2000s, George W Bush twice deployed guard troops on the border to focus on non-law enforcement duties to help augment the Border Patrol as it bolstered its ranks. And in 2010, the then Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, announced a border security plan that included guard reconnaissance, aerial patrolling and military exercises.
In July 2014, the then Texas governor, Rick Perry, ordered 1,000 national guard troops to the border when the surge of migrant children fleeing violence in Central America overwhelmed US officials responsible for their care. The guard troops’ stated role on the border at the time was to provide extra sets of eyes but not make arrests.
Bush initiated the federal 287(g) program – named for a section of a 1996 immigration law – to allow specially trained local law enforcement officials to participate in immigration enforcement on the streets and check whether people held in local jails were in the country illegally. Ice trained and certified roughly 1,600 officers to carry out those checks from 2006 to 2015.
The memo describes the program as a “highly successful force multiplier” that identified more than 402,000 “removable aliens”.
But federal watchdogs were critical of how DHS ran the program, saying it was poorly supervised and provided insufficient training to officers, including on civil rights law. Obama phased out all the arrest power agreements in 2013 to instead focus on deporting recent border crossers and immigrants in the country illegally who posed a safety or national security threat.
Trump’s immigration strategy emerges as detentions at the nation’s southern border are down significantly from levels seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Last year, the arrest tally was the fifth-lowest since 1972. Deportations of people living in the US illegally also increased under the Obama administration, though Republicans criticized Obama for setting prosecution guidelines that spared some groups from the threat of deportation, including those brought to the US illegally as children.
Chuck Schumer, the leading Democrat in the Senate, called the possibility of the roundups “despicable”.
“That would be one of the most un-American things that would happen in the last century and I just hope that it’s not true,” Schumer told reporters. “The fact that it might even be considered is appalling.”
Immigration advocacy groups reacted with astonishment to the news of the draft memo, warning that it could escalate the wave of fear that has swept through Latino communities since a series of raids that led to the arrests of almost 700 undocumented immigrants.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said that at a minimum tough talk about mobilizing the national guard could act as a scare tactic designed to frightened undocumented families into leaving the country. That idea was raised even as far back as Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, when he coined the phrase “self deportation”.
“Even the bare fact that the Department of Homeland Security would write such a memo, describing police-state tactics, is outrageous. Will 100,000 troops roam through Latino neighborhoods picking people up, presumably based on their physical appearance?” Sharry said.
News of the memo comes just a day after a group of Congress members was given an audience with the acting head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement, Thomas Homan. The politicians emerged from the meeting with the clear impression that the Trump administration intended to include almost all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country in its definition of potential targets for deportation.
One of those present, the Democratic representative for San Antonio in Texas Joaquin Castro, said on Twitter that “after attending the ICE meeting it’s hard not to conclude that President Trump has started his mass deportation plan. Only Dreamers with no offenses (including traffic tickets) or perceived gang affiliations seem exempt.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Castro said the DHS memo was “very disturbing”. He noted Spicer’s denials but said: “When you ask you get five different answers on controversial issues from the White House so it’s hard to know what is actual policy.”
He added that there was already a great deal of fear in immigrant communities. “It’s not just undocumented people who are impacted, it’s the lives of their parents and children and friends as well – there’s a lot of anxiety around.”
Bill Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, AILA, said the draft memo was in tune with the way the administration was conducting deportation raids.
“Agencies have been empowered by President Trump to get their deportation numbers up, and they do not appear to be terribly concerned about collateral damage – if they encounter an undocumented person they are picking them up.”
Stock said that if the memo got closer to implementation, legal questions would be asked about the use of military troops for domestic American matters. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act imposes strict limitations on the use of federal military personnel in carrying out domestic policy.
In 2006, the Bush administration mobilised the national guard to the southern border with Mexico to help secure the boundary. But the troops were held back in a supporting logistical role and did not actually carry out arrests or deportations of those trying to cross into the US.