WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's bold but vague pledge to deport "millions" of undocumented immigrants starting next week came on the eve of his reelection kickoff rally 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 political symbolism and stirring up public attention and anger than setting policy or issuing clear orders to federal authorities. It's not yet clear if a plan actually exists for mass arrests and removals on the scale and speed that Trump suggests.
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 he called on congressional Democrats to address the "border crisis."
An administration official said Tuesday that more than 1 million migrants face deportation orders and "remain at large." Many have long hidden from federal agents, or have sought refuge in churches and other sanctuaries, and it's unclear how many ICE agents could find.
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 official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president's tweet.
Government data partly contradicts that assertion. A Border Patrol official said in April that less than 2% of all undocumented 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 the voters who put him in office. But ICE is unlikely to quickly locate and remove vast numbers of migrants.
ICE already has been stretched increasingly thin by the near-record influx of migrants at the southern border, chiefly from Central America, over the past year. Its record of deportations was relatively low even before that, however. In fiscal 2017, which includes Trump's first six months in office, ICE deported only 226,119 immigrants, according to federal data.
In a statement Tuesday, the White House offered its rationale for going after migrants who are 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.