A few minutes later, it was their turn to collect presents from a back room. The trio came out pushing a cart with a boxed plastic kitchen, which Alicia eyed with interest. Portillo carried a heavy bundle of other presents, not letting the children see.
“A skateboard,” she said quietly, shaking her head.
Deportation has been central to the Obama administration’s response to the immigration crisis. “Removals,” as the procedure is officially known, climbed from 291,000 in fiscal 2007 to 409,000 in 2012.
And a significant number of the deported left children behind, according to new data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the liberal investigative news site Colorlines. In the past two years, more than 200,000 deportees reported having U.S.-born children, the site said.
U.S. officials say the majority of those deported have criminal records, have been repeat border jumpers or are fugitives from immigration procedures. The deportation strategy, supporters say, has allowed the administration to restore a measure of stability to a broken system while sparing the least-threatening of the undocumented.
“The who of who we are removing really shows our commitment to the security of our communities and maintaining the integrity of our immigration system,” said Gillian M. Christensen, deputy press secretary at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But the policy has stirred outrage among Latino lawmakers and advocacy groups, which say splitting so many families is inhumane and counterproductive.
“We have heads of household being deported and their spouse being left here to go on welfare,” said Cynthia Groomes Katz, a Bethesda immigration lawyer. “That does not help anybody. It’s been like catching a lot of dolphins in the tuna net.”
Katz, along with other advocates, sees some hope for a change.
In June, the administration began offering residency to certain immigrants brought here illegally as children. And Latino voters played a key role in Obama’s reelection last month, creating what many observers say are the best conditions for comprehensive immigration reform in years.
“We all expect comprehensive immigration reform this year, but we’ve been disappointed before,” said Jeanne Atkinson, head of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities D.C.
In 2011, ICE tweaked its guidelines to allow more discretion to prosecutors, and that shift may be showing up in hearing rooms.
“I think the new attitude is to look at more of these on a case-by-case basis; more of the removals are being set aside, for now at least,” Katz said. “We’re seeing few heartbreakers.”