US president Barack Obama’s administration is planning an operation to round up and expel migrant families fleeing drought and violence in Central America, according to reports published on Thursday.
The flow of families and unaccompanied children crossing into the United States from Mexico slowed in 2015, but the numbers surged upwards again in October and November.
Several Latin American countries are in the grip of violent lawlessness and the El Nino weather pattern has plunged several countries in the region into drought.
The Department of Homeland Security did not dispute anonymously-sourced reports in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal that a crackdown is imminent.
According to the reports, hundreds of families living in the United States whose asylum requests have been denied will be rounded up and sent home.
DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen told AFP that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson “has consistently said our border is not open to illegal immigration.
“If individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values.”
Any such operation would be controversial.
Refugee rights activists argue the families are fleeing corruption, gang violence and drought in their homelands and should be treated as refugees.
In El Salvador, there was a sobering wave of violence this year. Between January and November there were 6,065 homicides, according to the Forensic Medical Institute.
In Honduras, there has been a police crackdown but the homicide rate is still expected to be one of the highest in the world this year at 62 per 100,000 inhabitants.
And in Guatemala, there were 5,924 homicides in 2014, according to the national forensic sciences institute INACIF. In 70 percent of cases, firearms were the cause of death.
Last month, the UN weather agency warned that the El Nino phenomenon, triggered by a warming in sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, was the worst in more than 15 years.
Many countries around the Pacific rim are facing extreme weather, including drought, and Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras are among the worst victims.
Despite this trouble to the south, in the 2015 fiscal year arrests of non-documented migrants crossing the US southern border dropped by a third to the second lowest level since 1972.
The number of children crossing without their relatives -- which surged in 2014 -- was also well down over the period.
But the number of minors and of families crossing began to increase again sharply toward the end of 2015, alarming the Department of Homeland Security.
Arrests of members of “family units” on the US southwest border in October and November, the first two months of fiscal year 2016, were up 173 percent over the same period last year.
Arrests of unaccompanied minors are up 106 percent.
One of El Salvador’s top officials for migration issues called the US decision “regrettable.”
“We have been informed about the decision of senior (US) officials to begin deporting family units and non-accompanied minors,” said Liduvina Magarin, deputy minister for Salvadorans abroad.
“It is a regrettable decision by the US government (that affects) our Salvadoran families,” she said.
Immigration is one of the hottest topics in the 2016 US presidential campaign, with Republican hopefuls including frontrunner Donald Trump vying for who can promise the toughest stance.
Obama’s opponents -- some of whom like Trump have demanded that a massive border wall be built -- will argue the reported DHS plan is a stop-gap to disguise a broken immigration system.
But, according to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton could also find herself in a tough spot if the crackdown goes ahead.
Immigration advocate Frank Sharry of “America’s Voice” told The Post that Clinton would come under pressure from Latino supporters to disavow Obama’s tougher stance.
If Trump or his fellow Republicans claim credit for pressuring the White House into action, Clinton will have to decide whether to side with her liberal base or her president.