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U.S. launches small-scale deportation raids

U.S. authorities launched small-scale operations to arrest undocumented families over the weekend in a start to President Donald Trump's plan to deport thousands of immigrants.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be looking for as many as 2,000 people ordered deported

Advocates with the Florida Immigrant Coalition go house-to-house handing out flyers on Saturday in Little Havana in Miami, Fla. (Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

U.S. authorities launched small-scale operations to arrest undocumented families over the weekend in a start to President Donald Trump's plan to deport thousands of immigrants.

The multi-day operation was expected to target around 2,000 recently-arrived families in about 10 cities who have been ordered deported by an immigration judge.

The removal operations are meant to deter a surge in Central American families fleeing poverty and gang violence in their home countries, with many seeking asylum in the United States.

Immigrants and their advocates were on standby for mass arrests, but by early evening there were reports of only a few low-profile operations in cities including New York, Denver and Miami.

"We are doing targeted enforcement actions against specific individuals who have had their day in immigration court and have been ordered removed by an immigration judge," acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Matt Albence told Fox News when asked for an update.

Mary Bauer at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said there were no confirmed operations in large southern cities such as Atlanta.

Nor were there reports of mass arrests from the American Immigration Council, which has lawyers on standby to help people taken to the country's largest family detention centre in Dilley, Texas.

Advocates in some cities have been coaching migrants on their rights, including not to respond if agents knock on the door unless they show a warrant signed by a judge.

Protesters march to offices of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Saturday in Chicago. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

Immigration lawyer Katie Kavanagh, who works with a helpline in San Francisco to provide legal advice for migrants, told CBC News she and her organization want to ensure those targeted by the raids receive due process.

"Some [migrants] have been ordered deported without an opportunity to actually see a judge and fight their case," she said.

"We're certainly not helping them evade the law, but we want to make sure that every avenue they may have to stay here with their families and in their communities has been pursued and exhausted before they actually are forced out of this country."

On Friday, Trump confirmed that the plan, intended to discourage a surge of Central American migrants, was on track after a delay.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Friday that his plan to roundup and deport illegal migrants will happen 'fairly soon.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Trump revealed the operation on Twitter last month and then postponed it. It is unusual for the U.S. government to announce deportation operations ahead of time.

"People are coming into this country illegally; we are taking them out legally," Trump told reporters on Friday, calling it a "major operation" that would mainly focus on removing criminals.

In a typical week, ICE arrests thousands of immigrants who are staying in the country illegally, according to government data. Most of those arrests are made without any advance publicity.

Since Trump first spoke of the plan, a number of city mayors, nearly all Democrats, have repeated their long-standing policies of not co-operating with ICE officials on deportations and have advertised helplines people can call to understand their rights.

In midst of border debate

The ICE raids come in the midst of a heated debate about treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. While Republicans and Democrats agree the situation at the border is untenable, they are at odds as to who is to blame and how to fix it.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence visited two migrant detention facilities in Texas Friday with a group of Republican senators and several journalists. 

"I was not surprised by what I saw," he told reporters after the tour. "I knew we'd see a system that was overwhelmed."

WATCH | Vice-President Mike Pence outside a crowded, fenced enclosure housing male detainees at a border facility in McAllen, Texas:

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence got a first hand view of migrant detention facilities in the border city of McAllen, Texas, after legislators on Capitol Hill delivered emotional testimony about the conditions. 1:22

He denied, however, that detainees lacked basic necessities, such as soap, toothbrushes, access to showers and drinking water, as some Democrats had claimed and as a recent damning report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security has, in part, confirmed in the case of some facilities.

Reporters on the tour said that at one facility in McAllen, Texas, the group saw close to 400 men crammed into a fenced enclosure. 

Men stand in a U.S. Immigration and Border Enforcement detention centre in McAllen, Texas, during U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence's visit. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

Upon seeing journalists, some men yelled out that they had been held for more than 40 days, unable to shower, brush their teeth or call their families. Drinking water could only be accessed outside the fencing with permission from Border Patrol agents, reporters said.

The conditions were starkly different at the processing facility in Donna, Texas, where Pence told reporters every family he spoke to said they were being well cared for.

"And while we hear some Democrats in Washington, D.C., referring to U.S. Customs and Border facilities as 'concentration camps,' what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of," Pence said.

As Pence was touring the border facilities, Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., were clashing over who was to blame for the unacceptable conditions at the border during a House oversight and reform committee hearing on the effects of the Trump administration's past policy of separating migrant families and deteriorating conditions at border facilities housing children. 

The committee heard from 13 witnesses, including Thomas Homan, a former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had several heated exchanges with Democratic lawmakers.

WATCH | Former acting director of ICE gets grilling from Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly:

Republicans blamed Democrats for ignoring the escalating situation at the border. They called it a "manufactured crisis" made up for political gain.

"Democrats sure have changed their tune," said ranking Republican committee member Jim Jordan. 

"For years now, Republicans have been warning about the crisis and working hard to find solutions, and all the while, Democrats have denied there was even a problem. This is not about politics. It has always been about preserving the integrity of our border and preventing the humanitarian crisis we are all now witnessing."

Three members of the group of progressive Democrats known as "the Squad" also gave emotional testimony. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib described the conditions they witnessed when they visited border facilities earlier this month.

WATCH | 'I believe these women': Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez counters Republicans' incredulity about mistreatment of detainees at the border:

Churches offer sanctuary

Religious leaders across the U.S. are using the pulpit to quell concerns in immigrant communities and take action over the impending crackdown.

Rev. John Celichowski of St. Clare de Montefalco Parish in Chicago used his homily during mass to praise the compassion of a border activist accused of harbouring immigrants living in the country illegally. Another Chicago church planned a "deportation defence workshop."

Also in Chicago, a group of roughly 65 aldermen and activists are patrolling the city on bikes to look for immigration authorities detaining people as part of broader immigration sweeps.

A network of 25 Houston churches offered sanctuary to families fearing deportation.

In Miami, activists distributed fliers outside churches advising immigrants of their rights in case they encounter agents.

A dozen churches in the Los Angeles area have declared themselves sanctuaries for migrant families.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC's Kazi Stastna