By Seung Min Kim
January 5, 2016
Democrats and immigrant-rights groups have turned against the Obama administration in an uproar over recent deportation raids, likening the president to bombastic GOP front-runner Donald Trump and warning him that the controversial strategy will tarnish his legacy on immigration.
Anger from Democrats began to simmer shortly over Christmas when news of the planned raids leaked. But the furor boiled over this week when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the raid and rumors flew about more raid operations underway in other states.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) urged the administration to halt the raids, calling them a “cruel reminder of a discredited policy.” The Congressional Hispanic Caucus will discuss the raids at its weekly meeting Thursday. And advocates, who held a strategy call Tuesday, want a meeting with Johnson and are demanding more information, including whether the immigrants targeted in the raid have lawyers.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the sole Latino Democrat in the Senate, criticized the administration’s “harsh tactics” in a statement to POLITICO. He argued that the raids are targeting undocumented immigrants “whose only mistake was to escape a certain death in their native countries.”
“Furthermore, I have deep concerns of the chilling effect these home raids will have among immigrant communities who will understandably be terrified and deterred from approaching law enforcement to report crimes and forced further into the shadows,” Menendez said. “As we begin to get more details on these operations, let’s not overlook the devastating effect and cost to spending our limited DHS funds on deporting women and children and not violent felons.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, went further, calling the administration raids “something we would expect from a President Trump.”
“The very tactic — with teams of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers showing up at someone’s home, unannounced, using deception to gain entry, waking up sleeping children and carting away both parents and kids — is repugnant,” Sharry added. “When this happened during the Bush presidency, then-candidate [Barack] Obama denounced it. The fact that it is happening now under a President Obama is outrageous.”
The administration’s immigration enforcement strategy has long been a sore spot between Obama and immigrant advocates. They have largely supported the president’s immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill and back his executive actions to allow more than 4 million undocumented immigrants to stay and work legally in the United States — though those efforts have been tied up in the courts for nearly a year.
But immigrant advocates have also tagged Obama the “deporter-in-chief” because of the more than 2 million people who've been deported during his presidency. This month’s raids have taken the frustration to a new level.
Since the so-called border crisis flared in the summer of 2014 and confounded Washington, the administration has taken significant steps to try and stop the migrants — who hail primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — from entering the United States illegally.
For instance, administration officials had opened new detention centers for women and children, although a federal judge ruled last summer that the controversial detention practice violated a long-standing legal settlement.
The 121 undocumented immigrants who were taken into custody in the weekend raids have already been ordered deported from the United States, Johnson said. And those immigrants had all arrived in the country after May 2014, which is in line with administration policy that focuses on deporting criminals and those who came here illegally after Jan. 1, 2014.
"This is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the president himself has talked about; that our enforcement efforts need to be focused on deporting felons, not families, and with a particular focus on individuals who have only recently crossed the border," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday of the raids.
“The incredible disconnect of the president’s language about protecting refugees overseas as compared to his continuing treatment of the Central American population not as refugees but as illegal border crossers … will be a lasting legacy on his record,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s not just a blip of one weekend’s actions. It’s now an 18-month policy.”
The raids are also putting Democrats in a political squeeze between advocates and their liberal base, which abhors the raids and an administration that is defending them.
Johnson, who has signaled that raids will “continue to occur as appropriate,” has stressed that the immigrants being targeted in the raids have already exhausted all their legal options and have been ordered deported. The DHS chief’s argument is already resonating with influential Hill Democrats.
“These are folks who have been adjudged, as I understand it, by a court, have received an order to leave, and have not left and the law says that they need to leave,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday. He noted that the number of people taken into custody is a “relatively small number.”
That comment drew immediate criticism.
“Rep. Hoyer knows full well that the legal system has failed these families,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “To cite a legal process that Rep. Hoyer knows is broken, outdated and immoral as justification is the height of hypocrisy.”
Still, aside from a small handful of comments, congressional Democrats have largely been quiet about the raids, which were disclosed shortly before Christmas but confirmed by administration officials only on Monday. Congressional aides blamed the holiday recess, and advocates said there will likely be increasing pressure on Democratic lawmakers to rebuke the Obama administration over the raids.
When asked Monday about the family raids at a news conference in Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded that “no one’s talking about deporting children,” although reports indicated that children as young as 4 years old were taken into custody.
“The problem we have is with the parents because they have, at this stage, no legal right to be here,” Reid said. “And so that’s what we’re working on, to see if we can do something to alleviate the need for deporting these parents.”
Democrats were lashing out at the administration’s immigration policies in other ways. On Monday, new Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an order effectively rescinding the city’s participation in a new DHS program meant to smooth cooperation over immigration between cities and the feds.
Kenney’s predecessor, Michael Nutter, had announced just two weeks ago the city would join the so-called Priorities Enforcement Program. DHS officials declined to comment Tuesday on Philadelphia's executive order.
Advocates also warned of potential political consequences of the raids in a presidential year. All three Democratic presidential candidates have raised concerns about the ICE operations. But the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, had taken a more measured tone on the issue until Monday, when she said through a spokeswoman that the government “should not be conducting large-scale raids and roundups that sow fear and division in our communities."
“In an election year, it is not a good image to have young Latino mothers with small children being traumatized by ICE agents,” said Kevin Appleby, director for International Migration Policy for the Center for Migration Studies. “They can sugarcoat it all they want, but in the end they are spreading fear in Latino communities.”
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