Ana Lisette Mejía Gutiérrez's family has not slept well since the first days of January, when the Honduran woman and her son, then nine years old, were arrested in an immigration raid in Atlanta.
"We lived weeks of nightmares," her aunt, Johana Gutiérrez, told Univision Noticias. "They took them away from Atlanta, first to an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] jail here in Georgia, then to North Carolina, then to Texas and later to Philadelphia. They were held for two months, until they were released so they could continue to fight their deportation. It's a horrible situation, and we don't know how it will end."
Mejía Gutiérrez and her son were among the 121 Central American migrants who were detained during a string of raids in January in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said in December that ICE was complying with a Nov. 20, 2014 memorandum that set priorities for deportations: migrants who entered the United States after Jan. 1 2014, did not ask for asylum and have been issued deportation orders. But activists question if policy is being applied in reality.
The latest threat
ICE is now preparing a new string of detention raids, according to a Reuters report two weeks ago, and DHS has confirmed that ICE will carry out unspecified "operations" over a 30-day period.
"We don't know if she will be taken away again, and this time deported. We don't know anything because the government doesn't say anything. She and her son fled Honduras in 2014 because her partner and a brother were murdered. They asked for asylum at the [U.S.] border, but so far they have not obtained the protection they want," said Johana Gutiérrez.
Over the last 22 months, immigration courts issued 31,994 deportation orders related to minors detained at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, according to a report by the Department of Justice.
In many cases, minors who lack representation are unaware of a court order and automatically become fugitives if they fail to respond to legal notices.
"Women, their children and unaccompanied minors should not be a DHS priority for deportation. These are people fleeing and seeking refuge from the violence that is so pervasive in Central America," said Barbara Hines, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, a rights organization in Texas.
Lacking legal representation
A January report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University showed that between October 2015 and April 2016, U.S. immigration courts issued 44,204 deportation orders – 20 percent of them in Texas, where 10,102 undocumented migrants were ordered to leave the country.
TRAC also reported that 86 percent of the migrant women and children who went before the courts of the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review did so without a lawyer.
According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), immigration judges approve deportation orders in more than 93 percent of the cases where the migrants do not have adequate legal representation.
The crisis doesn't end
"Instead of spending thousands of dollars in jails for Central American families and even more money on detention raids and deportations, the [Obama] administration should spend that money on lawyers for these refugees," said Hines.
"The crisis is over there, not here. People are still coming because of the lack of security at home" in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, said the lawyer and researcher. Deportations "will not stop the wave of migrants, but will increase the fears in migrant communities in the United States."
"All the women I see in Karnes City are so afraid, have lived through so much violence and insecurity in their countries that their fears will not go away until the problems of Central America are resolved," said Hines, referring to an ICE detention center in San Antonio, Tx.
A state of alert
Migrant rights organizations have issued repeated alerts over the growing number of deportations.
"We are very disappointed with the reports of an increase in raids against Central American families, especially the refugees who come to the United States to escape the violence in their countries," said Ben Monterroso, executive director of the non-profit Mi Familia Vota Education Fund.
"These families, women and children must be protected, not persecuted and sent to certain death," Monterroso told Univision Noticias.
Human rights researchers and groups, among them Human Rights Watch, have warned that migrants who are denied asylum and deported run a high risk of being murdered in their home countries by the very people that provoked their flight to the United States in search of safety.
"We must immediately make sure that we don't deport those who are asking for refuge to avoid being killed," Monterroso added.
" Heartless" policy
Jorge Mario Cabrera, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), told Univision Noticias that his group is pressing the Obama administration, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and ICE Director Sarah Saldaña to stop the deportations immediately.
"This administration's political games with migration are macabre and reprehensible," said Lilia Velásquez, a law school professor at the University of California, San Diego.
It's extremely difficult to persuade a court to lift a deportation order because that requires an extraordinary excuse, such as a major disease, and few migrants win their cases and remain in the United States, Velásquez said. The key challenge is "finding more altruistic lawyers who will represent the refugees free of charge."
A constant wave of child migrants
In March, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested 4,240 undocumented migrant children on the border with Mexico, 1,141 more than recorded in February – an increase of 28%. During fiscal year 2014, the Border Patrol detained 68,541 migrant children on the southern border while trying to enter the country without authorization.
From October 1, 2015 to March 30, 2016, the number of arrests rose to 27,754, compared with 15,616 during the same period last year - an increase of 56.2%.
"Obama should not be trying to dissuade others from coming to the United States by deporting women and minors to violent countries" even after they requested asylum, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice.
"There is a refugee crisis in Central America, and to deal with it we must classify it precisely as a refugee crisis," he added. "The children and young families in Central America are escaping from terrible violence. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the bloodiest countries in the world."