By Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials have kicked off a new round of raids intended to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children who have entered the country illegally, according to a legal group that works with the immigrants.
Immigration enforcement officers as of Friday had arrested about 40 women and children encompassing at least 18 Central American family groups in Texas, North Carolina, South Dakota and possibly other states, said Laura Lichter, an immigration lawyer and a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Reuters reported on May 12 that the raids were planned for May and June and likely would be the largest deportation sweep targeting immigrant families by the administration of President Barack Obama this year after similar raids in which 121 people were arrested over two days in January.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea declined to confirm that the new round of raids had begun but defended the administration's deportation operations as a whole.
"We stress that these operations are limited to those who were apprehended at the border after January 1, 2014, have been ordered removed by an immigration court, and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum," Elzea said.
The immigrants arrested in the latest raids have been sent to two ICE detention centers in Texas, according to Belle Woods, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The deportation operations are intended to deter illegal immigration from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and curb crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border by Central Americans, U.S. officials have said.
Lichter said ICE was not following its own policy in the raids. "It's the same thing we saw in January. These people deserve asylum, but didn't get a proper chance to have their cases heard," Lichter said.
The issue of illegal immigration has figured prominently in the U.S. presidential campaign, with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump promising to deport all roughly 11 million people who are in the United States illegally.
The White House on May 13 defended its deportation policy after complaints from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and congressional leaders that the sweep targeting Central American illegal immigrants is inhumane.
"I'm against large-scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities," Clinton said at the time.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Will Dunham)