WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities took 121 people into custody over the weekend, primarily in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, as immigration authorities moved to deport families who entered the United States illegally after May 2014, officials said on Monday.
The so-called removals of adults and their children followed an increased rate of deportation of single adults to Central America since the summer of 2014, the Department of Homeland Security said.
"This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement.
American officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the surge in unaccompanied children entering the United States in 2014, when tens of thousands of minors traveling without adults flooded across the southern U.S. border illegally.
U.S. authorities have cracked down on convicted criminals living illegally in the United States over the past year, a focus that prompted Republican members of Congress to complain that the threat of deportation has eased for other documented immigrants.
The White House would not comment on Monday on specifics of the weekend apprehensions by immigration authorities.
"What I can tell you more broadly, is that the enforcement priorities laid out by the administration are concentrating our efforts to deport felons, not families, and to prioritize the case of recent border crossers," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing.
The apprehensions targeted adults and children who crossed the southern border illegally after May 1, 2014, DHS said. They had been ordered removed by an immigration court and exhausted legal remedies and claims for asylum, it said.
The 121 people taken into custody were primarily in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, the DHS statement said.
Most families will be taken to family residential centers before being put on flights to their home countries.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) condemned the actions and said the deportation policies were rigged against families. "These raids are a scare tactic to deter other families fleeing violence in Central America from coming to the United States," Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Jon Herskovitz in Texas; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Sandra Maler)