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 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.

The proposed deportations have been controversial inside the Obama administration, which has been discussing them for several months. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has been pushing for the moves, according to those with knowledge of the debate, in part because of a new spike in the number of illegal immigrants in recent months. Experts say that the violence that was a key factor in driving people to flee Central America last year has surged again, with the homicide rate in El Salvador reaching its highest level in a generation. A drought in the region has also prompted departures…

“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.”

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t dispute an operation has been planned to pursue Central Americans with removal orders. In a statement, the spokeswoman said the agency “focuses on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”…

“As Secretary Johnson has consistently said, our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values,” the statement said…

The official said that the operation’s goal is twofold: It aims to send the message to would-be crossers that they won’t be allowed to remain in the U.S. It also seeks to address safety concerns involved as adults entrust their lives and those of their children to human smugglers.

Jeh Johnson wants to send a message to Central Americans: Don’t come north. But Washington hasn’t solved the underlying problem of massive violence in their home countries that is causing them to come north in the first place,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska.

Hillary Clinton has real concerns about these reports, especially as families are coming together during this holiday season,” Hillary for America spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement emailed to the Washington Examiner. “She believes it is critical that everyone has a full and fair hearing, and that our country provides refuge to those that need it. And we should be guided by a spirit of humanity and generosity as we approach these issues.”…

Earlier today, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a leading immigration activist, told liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that, “This will be a political nightmare for the Democrats. 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.”

Should Clinton win the nomination, her general election hopes hinge on her ability to maintain the level of Hispanic support that helped President Obama win two terms in the White House.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said he was “very disturbed” by the reports, adding: “As we spend time with our families this holiday season, we who are parents should ask ourselves what we would do if our children faced the danger and violence these children do? How far would we go to protect them?”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another Democratic presidential candidate, called for an end to “mindless deportations.”

“DHS’ Christmas Eve announcement that they are planning to launch mass holiday raids and deport families who risked their lives to flee violence in Central America is completely at odds with our character as a nation,” O’Malley said in a statement…

“These are mostly women and children fleeing violence. Surely the Obama administration has a better Christmas in mind than the threat of deportation raids,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “To punish these families for our lack of a functioning refugee program that meets the needs of Central America would be a moral tragedy.”

At a time when the U.S. has pressed its European counterparts to keep their borders open to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, it would be an “embarrassment” to use such aggressive tactics against refugees at its own border, said Greg Chen, the advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

“It has treated this influx of central American asylum seekers as a border problem, rather than a humanitarian problem,” he told CBS News. “And now it is doubling down on a failed policy of treating asylum seekers as illegal border crossers rather than providing them with humanitarian protection.”…

“The president gave such a gorgeous speech,” during a naturalization ceremony earlier this month, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former AILA president. “He mentioned refugees, he mentioned what America is about, and then to turn out and find out on Christmas Eve that DHS, part of his administration…is planning this expulsion of people who happen to have removal orders from immigration judges is appalling.”

Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders told an invite-only group of Latino activists and politicians Wednesday night that he plans to use executive orders as a means of bypassing Congress to guarantee a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants

Sanders then proposed to use executive orders to broaden President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). Sanders said he believes this plan to be within the scope of presidential powers…

Under Sanders’ previously proposed immigration plan, all undocumented people living in the United States for at least five years would be allowed to stay in the country without the fear of being deported. “Close to nine million individuals would be able to apply for deferred action,” according the Sanders’ policy proposal. The plan also promotes increased legal counsel for detained immigrants, and pushes for an end to for-profit prisons.

Leaders of the church-based Sanctuary Movement vowed on Friday to offer their places of worship as refuge for immigrants facing deportation under an Obama administration crackdown on Central American families who entered the United States illegally…

“As pastors we know that each and every family is a holy family,” said the Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. “We open our doors to today’s Josephs and Marys. … The gift we have to offer on Christmas Day is the gift of sanctuary.”

The Sanctuary Movement, which Harrington said encompasses about 50 congregations in a dozen U.S. cities, made headlines in January by providing refuge in Philadelphia to a Honduran woman whose two children were born in the United States. She ultimately won a two-year reprieve from deportation.

For the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. who otherwise stay out of trouble, the chances of being deported are less than 1 percent, according to new figures released by the Department of Homeland Security.

The new figures show a dramatic four-year decline in the number of deportations carried out by the Obama administration, from more than 409,000 in 2012 to just 235,000 in fiscal 2015…

Obama has emphasized throughout his two terms that he is focused on deporting “criminal aliens.” Yet the new numbers show criminal alien deportations declined 27 percent from last year, from 86,923 to 63,127 in 2015.

Interior enforcement refers to immigrants arrested away from the border or a port of entry. But of the 69,478 deported under that category, 91 percent were previously convicted of a crime. That means just 5,939 illegal immigrants – who had not otherwise committed a crime — were deported from U.S. cities and towns in all of 2015.

The recent spike in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border brought U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske to the Rio Grande Valley sector this month.

“Historically the numbers would not be at the levels we see right now,” Kerlikowske said, while standing in a warehouse where about 20 migrant children rested on large green mattresses, wrapped in reflective plastic blankets. “The concerning part is, are we seeing the new normal?”

A total of 10,588 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in October and November, more than double the 5,129 who crossed during the same two months in 2014, federal statistics show. The number of family members crossing together, meanwhile, has nearly tripled, to 12,505. And though the influx began in July, the numbers were slightly higher this fall, a time when colder weather usually drives down the number of migrants crossing…

In McAllen, a respite center run by Catholic Charities looks after families who have been released by Border Patrol and given notices to appear at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices and immigration courts. Recently, mothers with children described various reasons for leaving: fleeing gang or domestic violence, providing opportunities to study for their children, reuniting with family who had long lived in the United States.

Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, dismissed noisy campaign rhetoric in American politics and said his country wants millions of undocumented immigrants to return home.

“We are building the opportunities in Mexico. We work hard to have jobs for them. We want them back. We need them back,” said Fox during an appearance on WFAA-TV’s Inside Texas Politics on Sunday…

According to the report, from 2009 to 2014, an estimated 870,000 Mexicans came to the United States while 1 million returned home, a net loss for the United States of 130,000.

Pinal County, AZ Sheriff and Congressional candidate Paul Babeu (R) stated, “just the last two months alone, we’ve had 10,000 unaccompanied juveniles” who are “staying here” and that “the Obama administration says the border is wide open, that there is no law it comes to immigration” on Monday’s “Cavuto: Coast to Coast” on the Fox Business Network…

He added, “We’re a compassionate nation. We always have been. And this is where I’m tired of being shouted down by President Obama, like somehow we’re not good Americans if we don’t do everything that he says we should to do. And we’ve had a million legal immigrants last year, and we do this every year.” Babeu continued, “I think it’s the most compassionate thing we can do, is reunite them with their families in Central America. What America should be doing is finding ways to solve the problems of violence in Central America, support their governments, because if we don’t solve that core problem, this isn’t going to end. We’re going to have this problem next month, next year, and then we own these people, and all the social network to support them for their entire lives. Because if you think that these kids are going anywhere, think again. They’re staying here.”

Babeu further argued, “our compassion, there has to be a limit to this. And we don’t see people in Europe, in the countries there, taking kids — refugees from central america, yet everybody wants us to take Syrian refugees from halfway across the world. So, where’s the fairness here?”

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…

The new moves also may threaten to blur the contrasts that Democrats have been working hard to draw with Republicans. The rise of Donald Trump — with his call for mass deportations and fondness for insulting millions of immigrants — has helped drag the GOP ever rightward on immigration and has Democrats dreaming of a 2012-level victory among Latinos in 2016, a demographic edge that would be very hard for Republicans to overcome. Sharry suggested that if the Dem nominee doesn’t full-throatedly condemn the new policy, it could compromise the sharp contrast Dems have etched.

Indeed, one can imagine Trump taking credit for the stepped-up deportations at one of his rallies, arguing that, by forcing a conversation about the true nature of the immigrant threat (which he likes to claim credit for doing), he has forced spineless elites to confront it. That could theoretically make it harder for Clinton to align with Obama. “The administration will be accused of being Trump-like with immigrants,” Sharry said. “She’ll have to choose.”