Almost by definition, a “raid” involves the element of surprise. The idea is to catch one or more people unaware in order to ensure that law enforcement can find them. That may be especially true for potential targets who are well aware of their fraught legal status — such as illegal immigrants who have remained in the US in defiance of court orders for deportation.

So … is a month’s notice about the “raids” considered a sporting chance, or what?

The Department of Homeland Security has begun preparing for a series of raids that would target for deportation hundreds of families who have flocked to the United States since the start of last year, according to people familiar with the operation.

The nationwide campaign, to be carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents as soon as early January, would be the first large-scale effort to deport families who have fled violence in Central America, those familiar with the plan said. More than 100,000 families with both adults and children have made the journey across the southwest border since last year, though this migration has largely been overshadowed by a related surge of unaccompanied minors.

The ICE operation would target only adults and children who have already been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge, according to officials familiar with the undertaking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because planning is ongoing and the operation has not been given final approval by DHS. The adults and children would be detained wherever they can be found and immediately deported. The number targeted is expected to be in the hundreds and possibly greater.

One can debate whether or not pursuing court-ordered deportations and tougher border enforcement are good policies (answer: yes), but this kind of leak to the targets of the raids just signals them to find someplace new to hide. Besides, enforcement should be ongoing, not something occasionally considered and even more occasionally performed. The AP noted yesterday that deportations have dropped to their lowest level in nine years:

The Obama administration formally disclosed Tuesday that in the 2015 budget year, the U.S. deported the fewest immigrants since 2006.

The Homeland Security Department oversaw the deportation of about 235,413 people between October 2014 and September 2015. Over the same period, 337,117 people were arrested trying to cross the border illegally.

DHS has previously said the drop in deportations overseen by ICE is largely due to the decline in arrests at the border. Border arrests dropped about 30 percent from 2014 to 2015. The 2015 border arrests included roughly 79,800 people traveling as families and children traveling alone, mostly from Central America.

According to the reporting from the Washington Post’s Jerry Markon and David Nakamura, the decline in deportations seems more reflective of a lack of action by DHS and the White House. It’s taken the Obama administration “several months” to finally decide to enforce the law, after a big internal debate on that question. The main reason that they finally decided to move forward on doing their jobs is because of another court action to force the emptying of detention centers … where “raids” would hardly be necessary anyway.

Needless to say, a few people are rather skeptical that these publicly scheduled raids will produce much other than “enforcement theater”:

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “What share is this going to be?. . . It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number they’ve admitted into the country. If you have photogenic raids on a few dozen illegal families and that’s the end of it, it’s just for show. It’s just a [public relations] thing, enforcement theater.”

Whether that’s the case or DHS really wants to get serious (the Post reports that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson wants to crack down to prevent another large-scale run on the border), the timing is odd in another sense, too. With Barack Obama nearing the end of his term in office, both Republicans and Democrats want to compete in some way for Hispanic voters. Thanks to the hardline rhetoric from the GOP presidential field on immigration, Hillary Clinton has a big opening to keep Hispanics from the Obama coalition within the Democratic Party. If DHS starts conducting raids and deportations on a massive scale just as voters start casting ballots in primaries, that may change the calculus for Hillary in the primaries, and for Democrats in the general election. That may be especially true if dramatic raids get lots of notice, and end up grabbing the wrong people. Depending on who wins the Republican nomination, they may give the GOP a second look — or simply stay home. Either could be fatal for Democratic hopes of succeeding Obama in the White House.

Update: Greg Sargent warns Democrats that this will be a “political bomb”:

In a preview of more to come, a leading immigration advocate, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, told me that there will be intense pressure on the Democratic presidential candidates — particularly likely nominee Hillary Clinton — to denounce the new policy. Sharry pointed out that this could force Clinton to decide whether to align with immigration advocates and Latinos, as she’s been doing in hopes of winning the Latino vote by a huge margin in the general election, which would mean breaking with the Obama administration and adopting a position that Republicans will attack as weak on immigration enforcement.

“This will be a political nightmare for the Democrats,” Sharry told me. “The specter of raids picking up families and sending them back to violent countries is going to put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She’ll have to choose between protecting refugees from Central America, a demand of the Latino community, or standing with the law-and-order position of Obama and Republicans.”

In fact, that’s so obvious that one has to wonder why Obama waited until now to pull the trigger — and why it’s being leaked to the biggest “establishment” newspaper in the US. Why not do this in the spring, long before the primaries begin? That would have taken a lot of pressure off of Hillary. It’s almost as if someone planned this for the worst possible moment. That should give observers plenty of opportunity for chin-stroking over the holidays.