WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s bold but vague pledge to deport “millions” of migrants facing removal orders, starting next week, came on the eve of his reelection kickoff Tuesday night in Florida — and it vastly overstates the number of likely deportees and the ability of federal agents to round them up.

Like many of Trump’s pronouncements, his tweet may be more about stirring up public attention and anger than setting policy or issuing clear orders to federal authorities. It’s not clear whether a plan actually exists for mass arrests and removals on the scale and speed that the president suggested.

Trump tweeted Monday night that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “will begin deporting the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States … as fast as they come in,” and called on congressional Democrats to address the “border crisis.”

Before leaving the White House for his campaign rally in Orlando, he was asked about reports citing Border Patrol and ICE officials who said they were unaware of any plans to swiftly ramp up deportations. “Well, they know. They know,” Trump said. “And they’re going to start next week.”

An administration official said Tuesday that more than 1 million migrants face deportation orders and “remain at large,” although some immigration advocates said that figure appeared exaggerated. In any case, many migrants facing deportation have long hidden from federal agents, and it’s unclear how many of them ICE agents would be able to find or process.

The removal orders “were secured at great time and expense, and yet illegal aliens not only refuse to appear in court, they often obtain fraudulent identities, collect federal welfare and illegally work in the United States,” said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s tweet.

Government data partly contradict that assertion. A Border Patrol official said in April that less than 2% of all immigrants detained at the border as part of family units in the previous year were found to have made false claims.

If ICE conducts mass roundups and arrests, the effort may give Trump political bragging rights on an issue critical to many of the voters who put him in office.

But ICE is unlikely to quickly locate and remove vast numbers of migrants, and subsequent court hearings and potential appeals would further strain ICE resources. The overburdened law enforcement agency often is responsible for transporting individuals to immigration courts and detaining them as their legal battles drag on.

“It’s not practical to think that our immigration system at this moment in time could handle … this directive and this order,” said Jennifer Quigley, director of refugee advocacy for Human Rights First, an advocacy group.

ICE already has been stretched thin by the near-record influx of migrants at the southern border, chiefly from Central America, over the last year. Its record of deportations was relatively low even before that. In fiscal 2017, which includes Trump’s first six months in office, ICE deported only 226,119 immigrants, according to federal data.

Traditionally, ICE has prioritized criminals for deportation. Of the 160,000 arrests made by ICE in 2018, about 120,000 were picked up illegally crossing the border, or were in custody of law enforcement for criminal offenses. Only 40,000 were detained in ICE raids or other actions inside the country.

Randy Capps, a research director at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said ICE doesn’t have the manpower to carry out a vast surge of arrests.

“How are you going to get from 40,000 to a million?” he said. “Are you going to hire 25 times as many ICE officers?”

In its statement Tuesday, the White House offered its rationale for going after migrants facing deportation orders from immigration courts, which are run by the Department of Justice and are not part of the federal judiciary.

The statement did not say when or how the president’s directive would be carried out.

“Countless illegal aliens not only violate our borders but then break the law all over again by skipping their court hearings and absconding from federal proceedings,” the White House said. “These runaway aliens lodge phony asylum claims only to be no-shows at court and are ordered removed in absentia.”

Mark Morgan, who was appointed last month as acting director of ICE, has indicated that the administration has sought ways to arrest and deport migrants who have been issued final deportation orders, including families.

As he heads into the 2020 race, Trump appears intent on maintaining his support with a base of voters galvanized by his hard-line approach to immigration even if he has failed to deliver on many of his key campaign pledges.

Trump has yet to build new miles of wall along the southern border, and Mexico has flatly refused to pay for it despite Trump’s improbable promises in the 2016 campaign. He has failed to change federal immigration laws, and rather than shrinking the flow of migrants to the southern border, he has seen it surge dramatically on his watch.

Still, Trump has pushed the issue relentlessly — deploying thousands of U.S. combat troops on the southern border, shutting down large parts of the government for 35 days in a failed attempt to get Congress to provide more money, threatening Mexico with 25% trade tariffs before backing down, and using executive authority to bypass Congress and raid the Pentagon budget for increased border security.

Trump has announced a number of measures, some more significant than others, to demonstrate action on his signature issue.

In October, just days before the midterm election, Trump sent 5,000 National Guard troops to the border, declaring in a bellicose tweet: “We are now sending ARMED SOLDIERS to the Border.”

Most ended up stringing concertina wire or doing other mundane tasks, but in April the administration loosened restrictions that had barred the military from interacting with migrants so that troops could assist Border Patrol officers more directly. Several thousand troops are still on border duty.

Last month, the president held a Rose Garden event to tout an immigration plan devised by his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. The proposal offered little to Democrats in Congress and thus had no real chance of moving forward.

And on Friday, he appointed Thomas D. Homan, an immigration hard-liner, to fill a newly created and ambiguously defined position as the administration’s “border czar.” Homan served as the acting head of ICE under Trump before retiring last year and becoming a prominent commentator on Fox News.

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Frustrated with his administration’s inability to carry out his demands, Trump suggested that Homan will be tasked with seeing that immigration laws and directives are enforced more rigorously.

“He’ll be very much involved in the border,” Trump said, announcing the appointment in a phone interview with “Fox & Friends.” “He’ll be reporting directly to me. He’ll be probably working out of the White House but spending a lot of time at the border.”

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Even after 21/2 years in office, there is often no reliable formula for determining which of Trump’s tweets are likely to materialize in reality.

Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April as secretary of Homeland Security after balking at a White House proposal to rev up deportations of immigrant families, which senior adviser Stephen Miller and others have suggested would reduce incentives for immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Migrant families detained at the border are often released into the U.S. interior because of court-ordered limits on how long minors can be held in custody. The Trump administration has sought to change that, detaining thousands of immigrant parents and their children before courts stepped in and ordered the families be reunified.

In Los Angeles, Trump’s tweet sent fear and frustration through the streets of MacArthur Park.

“He’s causing a panic,” said Lupe Santiago, 53, at her hot dog stand on Alvarado. “What does he have against us? We’re working. We know it’s not our country but we’re helping. We don’t live off the government.”

Yessenia Rodriguez, 34, who fled El Salvador, said she is skeptical of Trump’s tweets. “Sometimes we think it’s all politics,” she said. “But also, we can’t let our guard down. It could be true, it could be lies.”

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Lilian Serrano, chairwoman of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said she’s heard from community members worried about what might happen to them or their families. “With this new threat, we know already it’s going to create another wave of chaos in our communities.”

In Texas, Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Rio Grande Valley-based Texas Civil Rights Project, said rumors were spreading that the ICE raids already had begun.

“I’ve already heard reports of ICE agents showing up at people’s homes and looking for other people who don’t have status,” Olivares said. “The chilling effect is there.”

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Many families near the border have mixed immigration status and could be swept up in a dragnet. Migrant advocates said they plan to monitor federal courts and border bridges for mass arrests or deportations.

“One raid in a neighborhood can be devastating even if ICE targets small numbers” of migrants, said John-Michael Torres, spokesman for La Union del Pueblo Entero, a community group. “Raids separate families.”

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(Los Angeles Times staff writers Alejandra Reyes-Velarde in Los Angeles, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Kate Morrissey of The San Diego Union-Tribune in San Diego contributed to this report.

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

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