The U.S. government is set to launch an operation this week to send court documents to 78,000 migrants who were not processed for deportation after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization this year, two people briefed on the plan told CBS News.
Starting Monday, U.S. immigration authorities will dispatch packets of legal documents that will instruct migrants, many of them families with children, to show up to court hearings before immigration judges, who will determine whether the new arrivals will be allowed to stay in the country, the sources said.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plan, dubbed "Operation Horizon," is designed to place tens of thousands of migrants who received ad hoc processing near the southern border into deportation proceedings. The agency will be sending migrants "notices to appear," as well as other documents.
Typically, migrants who are released after crossing the southern border — instead of being rapidly deported or held in detention — are provided "notices to appear," which require them to see an immigration judge who can order their deportation if they fail to show up to court dates.
However, starting in March, U.S. border officials did not issue notices to appear to tens of thousands of migrants who were released, citing strained resources due to a sharp increase in migration. Instead, these migrants were provided "notices to report," or instructions to show up to an ICE office in their respective destination within 60 days to continue their processing.
Issuing a notice to appear takes between 60 and 90 minutes, while a notice to report can be prepared in 10 minutes, according to an internal government document. Unlike a notice to appear, a notice to report does not place migrants in deportation proceedings within the immigration court system.
In fiscal year 2021, which ended at the end of September, U.S. border authorities made more than 1.7 million migrant apprehensions, an all-time high, according to. About 61% of migrants taken into U.S. custody were swiftly expelled to Mexico or their home country under a Trump-era pandemic policy known as Title 42.
In a statement to CBS News, ICE confirmed the operation, saying it will help the agency initiate "removal proceedings in a timely way."
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is mailing charging documents to place noncitizens in removal proceedings who have been paroled or released under prosecutorial discretion by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)," the agency said. "Noncitizens are being directed to their closest ICE Field Office and will be processed using the information collected by CBP as evidence of citizenship and removability."
During these appointments, ICE will take photos, collect fingerprints, review case files and determine whether migrants will be fitted with ankle bracelets or enrolled in other programs designed to ensure their compliance with reporting requirements, the agency said. "Action will be taken against those that do not appear consistent with the law and Department priorities," ICE added.
The ad hoc "notice to report" processing has garnered criticism from Republican lawmakers who have grilled Biden administration officials over its legality and questioned how the government can monitor migrants who were not formally processed for deportation after entering the U.S. unlawfully.
When Republican Senator Chuck Grassley pressed him on the issue last month, Chris Magnus, President Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection, said, "The better practice would be to have individuals be noticed to appear as opposed to noticed to report."
The plan to send notices to tens of thousands of migrants next week has led to some concerns among advocates for immigrants who believe many of the legal packets may be sent to addresses where the intended recipients do not live.
"We know that when people are entering, they give CBP an address and it's typically an address of where they know somebody in the United States. But that doesn't mean that it is where they will reside," said Amy Fischer, advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. "We also know that CBP has a long history of writing down inaccurate information."
Sending notices to appear to the wrong addresses could lead immigration judges to order the deportation of migrants who miss their court dates because they were never aware of them in the first place, Fischer said.
"People can be removed and deported to the very fear that they fled simply by not showing up to the court date," she said.
To halt their deportation cases, migrants can ask judges to grant them asylum or other forms of immigration relief. If their applications are denied, they can be deported or they can appeal the judge's decision. U.S. immigration courts currently have a backlog of over 1.4 million pending cases, according to researchers at Syracuse University.
Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, called on ICE to issue and publicly post guidance requiring its prosecutors to prove that migrants received notices to appear before moving to deport them.
"The public needs to be able to see it, particularly lawyers who are going to be asked to suddenly represent 80,000 new folks who are going to get slapped with notices to appear," Gupta said.
Nicole Sganga contributed reporting.
for more features.