The Trump administration considered a proposal to mobilise as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorised immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, reports say.
An 11-page memo obtained by the Associated Press apparently calls for the unprecedented militarisation of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana.
Staff in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly said the proposal had been discussed as recently as Friday 10.
Four states that border Mexico were included in the reported proposal – California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The other seven are Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the memo was “not a White House document”.
He called the AP report “100% not true” and said there had been “no effort at all to utilise the National Guard to round up unauthorised immigrants”.
A DHS official described the document as a very early draft that was not seriously considered and never taken to the secretary for approval.
Governors in the 11 states would have had a choice whether to have their guard troops participate, according to the memo, which reportedly bears the name of homeland security secretary John Kelly, a retired four-star marine general.
While National Guard personnel have been used to assist with immigration-related missions on the US-Mexico border before, they have never been used as broadly or as far north.
The memo was apparently addressed to the acting heads of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection.
It could have served as guidance to implement the wide-ranging executive order on immigration and border security that Donald Trump signed on January 25.
Also dated January 25, the draft memo reportedly says troops would be authorised “to perform the functions of an immigration officer in relation to the investigation, apprehension and detention of aliens in the United States”, and to conduct searches and identify and arrest any unauthorised immigrants.
Nearly half of the 11.1 million people residing in the US without authorisation live in the 11 states, according to Pew Research Centre estimates based on 2014 census data.
Use of National Guard troops would greatly increase the number of immigrants targeted in one of Mr Trump’s executive orders last month, which expanded the definition of who could be considered a criminal and therefore a potential target for deportation.
That order also allows immigration agents to prioritise removing anyone who has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offence”.
Under current rules, even if the proposal had been implemented, there would not have been immediate mass deportations.
Those with existing deportation orders could be sent back to their countries of origin without additional court proceedings, but deportation orders generally would be needed for most other unauthorised immigrants.
Spokesmen for the governors of nine of the states either declined to comment or said it was premature to discuss whether they would participate.
The draft memo also apparently mentions other items in Mr Trump’s executive order, including the hiring of an additional 5,000 border agents, which would need financing from Congress, and his campaign promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico.
Allowing Guard troops to operate inside non-border states also would go far beyond past deployments.
In addition to responding to natural or man-made disasters or for military protection of the population or critical infrastructure, state Guard forces have been used to assist with immigration-related tasks on the US-Mexico border, including the construction of fences.
Mr Trump’s immigration strategy is emerging as detentions at the nation’s southern border are down significantly from levels seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Last year, the arrest tally was the fifth-lowest since 1972.
Deportations of people living in the US illegally also increased under the Obama administration, although Republicans criticised Mr Obama for setting prosecution guidelines that spared some groups from the threat of deportation, including those brought to the US illegally as children.
Last week, ICE officers arrested more than 680 people around the country in what Mr Kelly said were routine, targeted operations. Advocates called the actions stepped-up enforcement under Mr Trump.