By Mike Lillis
May 17, 2016
Breaking with many House Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is defending the Obama administration for rounding up scores of asylum seekers earlier this year with plans to deport them.
Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC)have ripped the operation, which led to the arrest of 121 undocumented immigrants in January, most of them women and children who had arrived recently from Central America.
Pelosi has been a loud critic of the administration’s handling of the new arrivals, raising sharp concerns about the conditions at detention centers and the legal protections provided to the families. But concerning the arrests themselves, she says the administration is on sound footing.
“There were no raids in January,” Pelosi told The Hill on Friday. “You know, people throw the term around, but in January fewer than, I think, 100 people were identified as those who should go back over the border. So they make it sound like they’re massive raids ... but that’s discreet enforcement.”
The comments mark a shift from Pelosi’s position in January, when she criticized the deportations for risking the very lives of those affected.
“The mothers and children — and it’s overwhelmingly who we’re talking about here — they are the subjects of these proceedings. They are desperately trying to escape violence in their home countries,” Pelosi said at the time.
The administration “must ensure that no person is wrongfully deported to face certain persecution or mortal danger,” she added. “And that’s what’s happening there.”
Pelosi’s recent remarks represent a sharp split from Democrats in her caucus. They have hammered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with charges the government was dividing families — and doing so around the Christmas holiday — while potentially sending women and kids back to dangerous conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which rank among the most violent and corrupt countries in the world.
“It creates panic. It creates fear. It’s a terrible way to create policy,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a CHC member, said Friday.
The issue has taken on new urgency since Reuters reported last week that DHS’s round-up operation is poised for a new, broader phase in the coming months.
“The last time, the consequences in communities like mine were pretty severe,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), also a CHC member. “Now [they say] we’re going to amplify those raids, that we’re going to be more selective. They weren’t selective the last time, and I don’t see that happening this time either.”
Pelosi, by condoning the January arrests, has given the White House some cover as it enters the next phase of the ongoing operation. She declined to comment on the future operations, saying she wants first to learn the details from the administration.
“I want to hear from the White House what their understanding of this is, because it’s a difficult issue,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants the administration to change course.
“I hope the administration reconsiders these raids,” he said in a statement Friday. “Instead of separating children from their parents, the administration should continue to address the violence and instability in the region that is forcing these families to leave.”
The asylum seekers have put President Obama in a tough spot.
On one hand, the president wants to prevent a repeat of the migrant surge of 2014, when tens of thousands of Central Americans — many of them families and unaccompanied children — swamped the southern border, claiming refuge from violence in the Northern Triangle countries.
Another surge could bolster the argument of hard-line deportation proponents — most notably Donald Trump — that the administration’s immigration policies have created chaos on the border. And the deportation of even a small number of the recent arrivals might act as a deterrent, sending the message that not everyone seeking asylum status gets to stay.
On the other hand, Obama also doesn’t want to anger the Hispanic community in an election year when Democrats, fighting to energize Hispanic voters, feel they’ve been dealt an ace in the form of Trump. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee is pushing an immigration platform — including a plan to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally — that has alienated many Hispanics.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) acknowledged the various pressures facing the administration.
“In light of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, nativist campaign, to be doing this in any kind of high-profile way right now, it gets magnified, enormously so,” Connolly said. “The ramifications in immigrant communities are similarly magnified because of that context. So enormous sensitivity has to be employed here, and it sounds like it hasn’t been.”
The White House and DHS officials have defended their strategy, saying they’re simply following guidelines the agency adopted in November of 2014, which sought to prioritize the deportation of criminals and those arriving illegally after Jan. 1 of that year.
“The only people who are the targets of these operations are people who are subject to an order by an immigration court for removal and people who have also, in addition to being subject to that order, have exhausted any potential claims that they have for humanitarian relief,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.
“We’re going to enforce our laws.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the Hispanic Caucus who represents a border district, said such enforcement is vital if the country hopes to control its borders.
“I’m more one of those law-and-order Democrats,” he told The Hill recently. “Once you go through the immigration process ... [and] you have some sort of representation, then at that time, if there’s a final, non-appealable order, then you should be deported. Otherwise, why have immigration judges? Why have border security? Just open the borders.”
But a louder chorus of Democrats says the system is rigged against the asylum seekers because they aren’t guaranteed legal counsel.
“If you’re a drug dealer, or a rapist — a murderer, a human trafficker — and we go after you, what are you guaranteed? A lawyer,” Gutiérrez said. “But if you’re the victim of those criminal enterprises, what do you get? Nothing.”
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