By Seung Min Kim
January 12, 2016
Democratic furor over the Obama administration’s immigration raids erupted Tuesday when a senior White House official was summoned to the Capitol to meet with angry lawmakers and a top Senate Democrat pressed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to pause the controversial operations.
White House counsel Neil Eggleston drew the unenviable task of trying to quell the anger in the Democratic caucus, although tensions showed little signs of easing after his presentation.
The Eggleston meeting, hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and confirmed by three sources, came as more than 100 House Democrats had planned to deliver a strong rebuke to the administration in a new letter over the raids. Eggleston’s meeting preempted a news conference on the topic that had been scheduled late Tuesday morning, but Democrats held the news conference anyway Tuesday afternoon and released the letter with 146 signatures, including those of members of Democratic leadership.
“I didn’t come here to really worry too much about people in the executive or in positions of power and if they feel uncomfortable,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said. “That’s not something that I really concern myself very much with. I concern myself with people whose lives are at stake.”
In the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he spoke with Johnson — who has vehemently defended the raids — over the Democrats’ concern about the new enforcement strategy from the administration.
“He understands the concern we had,” Reid said of Johnson. “And I think we’re moving forward to a resolution. I think you’re going to find a pause in these deportations.” A Reid spokeswoman later said the senator was expressing his hope the raids will be paused, rather than disclosing a shift in administration strategy.
The intraparty split over the controversial raids deepened on the same day as President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. The Democrats’ letter had criticized Obama for welcoming refugees from other parts of the world but treating immigrants from Central America differently.
Democratic lawmakers have argued that the administration should give them protected status, rather than deporting them — although they are immigrants who have already been ordered deported. Administration officials insist that immigrants being targeted in the raids have exhausted all legal options.
“The DHS operation has generated widespread fear and panic in immigrant communities and has far-reaching impacts beyond the alleged targets for removal,” according to the letter, which was spearheaded by Gutiérrez and Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California. “[W]e believe that this operation should be immediately suspended until we can ensure no mother or child will be sent back to a country where they would face persecution, torture or death.”
Following the meeting, Eggleston said only that he had a “good meeting” with the lawmakers and he looked “forward to continuing to talk to them.” And an administration official said Eggleston briefed lawmakers on the current situation at the southern border, where there has been a significant spike in the numbers of immigrants arriving illegally from Central America.
“The administration continues to reinforce that while we recognize the serious underlying conditions that cause some people to flee their home countries, we cannot allow our borders to be open to illegal migration,” an administration official said following the meeting with Eggleston.
Indeed, new numbers underscore the administration’s concern about the rising illegal migration. From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015, there was a 187 percent increase in the number of immigrants with children being apprehended at the southern border, compared with the same three months in 2014, according to federal data.
As for unaccompanied children being apprehended at the border, there has been a 117 percent increase in the same time period. The administration has made it clear that the unaccompanied children — who under U.S. law are treated and cared for differently than those who arrive with a parent — could be targeted for raids, according to multiple sources.
The raids have created a rift in the Democratic Party. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said Monday that the raids should stop, saying the operations “have sown fear and division in immigrant communities across the country.”
For his part, Gutiérrez said later Tuesday that “it’s yet to be decided” on Obama’s immigration legacy.
White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz and Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with House Democrats last week, but lawmakers remained deeply concerned after the meeting.
During that meeting, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said lawmakers “made it very clear that what was being pursued … was creating a very high level of fear.”
“I think they are taking the concerns seriously,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “I don’t have information that they’ve gone beyond the 121 [undocumented immigrants targeted in the raids]. I do think they want to send a very strong message to people in Central America. The problem is the way they handled this.”
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