WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's Department of Homeland Security had planned nationwide raids to target 8,400 undocumented immigrants later this month, according to three law enforcement officials and an internal document that described the plan as "the largest operation of its kind in the history of ICE," an acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But after NBC News reported the plans late Thursday, the agency issued a statement saying it had cancelled nationwide enforcement actions due to Hurricane Irma and the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
"While we generally do not comment on future potential law enforcement actions, operational plans are subject to change based on a variety of factors," ICE spokesman Sarah Rodriguez said in a statement. "Due to the current weather situation in Florida and other potentially impacted areas, along with the ongoing recovery in Texas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had already reviewed all upcoming operations and has adjusted accordingly. There is currently no coordinated nationwide operation planned at this time. The priority in the affected areas should remain focused on life-saving and life-sustaining activities."
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Prior to the initial NBC News report, another spokeswoman for ICE, Jennifer Elzea, had said the agency was "not able to speculate about potential future targeted enforcement actions."
The raids were scheduled over five days beginning Sept. 17, and were called "Operation Mega," according to the document, a memo circulated agency-wide in August.
It is not unusual for ICE operations to target immigrants by the hundreds or even low thousands. The higher-than-usual target number may have been partially driven by an effort to reach a deportation goal by the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, one of the officials said.
The cancelled operation comes on the heels of Trump's controversial decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, that allows some immigrants who were brought into the United States as children to stay.
ICE had been planning the operation internally since mid-August and had instructed officers in the field to target adults deemed to be gang members or perpetrators of serious crimes, said one of the officials. Other undocumented immigrants not suspected of crimes may have been swept up in the raids as "collateral," the official said.
Immigration agents often only arrest one-quarter to one-half of the target population due to the difficulty of locating individuals and getting them to open their doors to agents.
Department of Homeland spokesman Dave Lapan said earlier Thursday that immigration agents would cease to target non-criminal immigrants seeking relief from Hurricane Irma. The agency followed the same protocol in areas of Texas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey last week.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.