WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is openly stepping up efforts to find and deport immigrants who were part of the 2014 surge of illegal crossings by unaccompanied children and families.
The politically fraught endeavor is a follow-through on a nearly 2-year-old warning that those immigrants who don't win permission to stay in the United States would be sent packing. It comes at a time when Republican presidential candidates are pushing for tougher immigration action.
Homeland Security officials have kept a wary eye on the border since more than 68,000 unaccompanied children and roughly as many people traveling as families were caught crossing the border illegally in 2014. The effort to step up enforcement against families and young immigrants started in the midst of a new flood of such immigrants.
Previous efforts to curb illegal crossings seemed to work initially, as the number of children and families crossing illegally dropped about 40 percent between 2014 and 2015. But that number started to rise again late last summer. At the same time, the immigration court system faced a backlog of more than 474,000 cases of unaccompanied child immigrants.
Now the Obama administration is touting its efforts to find and deport families as well as those unaccompanied children who are now adults who have been ordered home. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has highlighted his department's deportation efforts.
One of those unaccompanied children-turned-adults targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is 19-year-old Wildin David Guillen Acosta. He said he came to the United States from Honduras by bus, car and on foot after a gang member threatened to kill him.
"I wouldn't go out at night. He'd call me and say, 'I'm going to kill you, I'm going to kill you,' " Acosta said in Spanish. "I told my mother and she told me to come to the United States."
Acosta, speaking from an immigration jail in rural Georgia, said he was afraid to go home.
"I'm scared. I don't want to go back. There's a lot of violence, a lot of death," Acosta said. "They'll kill you for a telephone. How is this possible?"
His mother, Dilsia Acosta, said her son came to the U.S. in June 2014 at the peak of a wave of immigrant children. His father, Hector Guillen, came to the United States illegally in 2005 and his mother followed in 2013. Wildin Acosta was arrested in January after a judge ruled that he should be deported.
Wildin Acosta, who had been going to school and working since arriving in North Carolina, said now he hopes to win asylum. But the odds are against him because he has a pending deportation order.
Immigration advocates have rallied around Wildin Acosta and others and are pressing the administration to reverse course.
But U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement isn't backing down.
Since October, more than 800 immigrants who arrived as unaccompanied children have been sent home, according to ICE statistics. Other formerly unaccompanied child immigrants with pending deportation orders have been detained in preparation for deportation.
ICE's head of enforcement operations, Tom Homan, told Congress in February that his agents are aggressively pursuing unaccompanied former-child immigrants and families.
"We have sent out thousands of leads on (unaccompanied children) who have final orders issued by the immigration courts, some in absentia, some in person, and we are out looking for those leads," Homan told lawmakers. "I have 129 (fugitive operations) teams out there every day."
About 10,000 unaccompanied children have been ordered out of the country since July 2014, but roughly 87 percent of those orders were issued in absentia, according to Justice Department figures.
In early January, DHS started targeting families who had lost their bid to stay in the United States, and ICE announced the arrests of 121 people — more than half of whom have been sent home so far.
Johnson said the arrests should come as no surprise since he announced in late 2014 that new border crossers were an enforcement priority.
"We do not have, and cannot have, an open border so we have to have enforcement at the border," Johnson told The Associated Press. "Are enforcement actions against families pleasant? No, of course not. In a very personal way, I recognize that."
Nonetheless, he added, "We have to enforce the law."
The arrests have angered immigration advocates and Democrats who argue it is dangerous to send families and young immigrants back to dangerous and impoverished Central American countries.
And the efforts come at a complicated time for Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are both vying for the Hispanic vote.
Clinton and Sanders have both denounced the January arrests of families and promised to be more lenient in enforcing immigration laws than President Barack Obama.
Kevin Appleby, director of international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, said the administration is "caught in a difficult spot."
"Before they start deporting unaccompanied children wholesale they have to fix ... the legal system so these children have a fair opportunity" to fight to stay in the country, Appleby said.
Johnson said it's a matter of adhering to the agency's priorities.
"We can't have a policy that if you come here and you do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and you've been ordered removed by an immigration court" you can stay anyway, Johnson said.