WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will step up efforts to deport families of undocumented migrants in the United States, the new leader of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said on Tuesday, in an aggressive step to discourage illegal immigration at the southwestern border.
Mark Morgan, who took over last week as the acting director of ICE, stopped short of setting a timeline for deploying agents to arrest thousands of migrant families. But he said deporting them was necessary to deter a record-high number of Central American migrants from approaching the border.
The new focus will apply to migrants who have missed a court hearing or otherwise received deportation orders.
“We will be going after individuals who have gone through due process, who have received final orders of deportation. That will include families,” Mr. Morgan said in a briefing with reporters. “Right now we’re talking about that and what it should look like.”
Mr. Morgan was installed at ICE after President Trump in April pulled the nomination of the former acting director, Ron Vitiello, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher direction.” Mr. Vitiello had resisted White House pressure to raid migrant families’ homes and neighborhoods, in part because of the bad optics of targeting children.
Mr. Morgan, a former Border Patrol chief at the end of the Obama administration, has marketed himself in television appearances as an aggressive leader. On Tuesday, he said an operation that had targeted migrant families during the Obama administration led to a decline in immigration at the southwestern border.
But officials then were hesitant to do so, given the aggressive perception it would create, said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under former President Barack Obama.
“Their worry was being in a situation where officers are doing an uncomfortable thing, where they’re taking a family with children out of their home,” Ms. Muñoz said. She added that many migrants miss their court dates because their notices to appear go to the wrong address.
Mr. Morgan wasted no time in criticizing Congress during his first meeting with reporters as ICE’s leader.
He said Congress had “failed” to assist federal immigration authorities with a surge of Central American families by not approving more than $4 billion in funding, largely for bed space for shelters and other facilities housing migrant children. Some of the money would also add beds to ICE detention centers for adults.
He also said the Trump administration was pushing for Mexico to negotiate a “safe third country” agreement, which would require migrants from Central America to apply for asylum in Mexico, rather than in the United States. International treaties on migration require those fleeing violence to apply for protection in the first safe country they come to.
Mr. Morgan urged Mexico to “get off the sidelines and join us on the field to be equal co-partners to address this issue.”
But Mexican officials, in Washington for negotiations that are set to begin on Wednesday, separately told reporters they would reject the proposal despite Mr. Trump’s threat to place tariffs on Mexican imports in an effort to keep migrants from reaching the United States border.
In interviews with Fox News over the past year, Mr. Morgan has said he looked into the eyes of migrant children and saw potential members of Mara Salvatrucha, the notorious gang known as MS-13. He has also said he supported busing migrants to so-called sanctuary cities, where local officials are refusing to cooperate with ICE.
On Tuesday, Mr. Morgan said again that American cities far from the border must deal with the immigration surge.
“Every city and every state in this country is a border city and a border state, with respect to this crisis,” he said.