U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

This scoop from Jerry Markon and David Nakamura is going to scramble the politics of immigration in the presidential race, and it may create more problems for Democrats than for Republicans:

The Department of Homeland Security has begun preparing for a series of raids that would target for deportation hundreds of families who have flocked to the United States since the start of last year, according to people familiar with the operation.

The nationwide campaign, to be carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents as soon as early January, would be the first large-scale effort to deport families who have fled violence in Central America, those familiar with the plan said. More than 100,000 families with both adults and children have made the journey across the southwest border since last year, though this migration has largely been overshadowed by a related surge of unaccompanied minors.

The ICE operation would target only adults and children who have already been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge, according to officials familiar with the undertaking…The adults and children would be detained wherever they can be found and immediately deported. The number targeted is expected to be in the hundreds and possibly greater.

Read the rest for the details, but the short version is that there has been vigorous internal debate inside the Obama administration about this policy, and it has not been signed off on officially. The administration has long signaled that families crossing over illegally who do not qualify for asylum will be deported. But advocates have been urging the administration to treat these migrants as refugees, because experts believe that violence in Central America is a key reason for their efforts to cross the southern border.

In a preview of more to come, a leading immigration advocate, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, told me that there will be intense pressure on the Democratic presidential candidates — particularly likely nominee Hillary Clinton — to denounce the new policy. Sharry pointed out that this could force Clinton to decide whether to align with immigration advocates and Latinos, as she’s been doing in hopes of winning the Latino vote by a huge margin in the general election, which would mean breaking with the Obama administration and adopting a position that Republicans will attack as weak on immigration enforcement.

“This will be a political nightmare for the Democrats,” Sharry told me. “The specter of raids picking up families and sending them back to violent countries is going to put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She’ll have to choose between protecting refugees from Central America, a demand of the Latino community, or standing with the law-and-order position of Obama and Republicans.”

Clinton has faced a similar predicament before. In 2014, when the crisis of unaccompanied children crossing the border dominated the news, Clinton triggered an outcry from immigration advocates when she suggested that they should be “sent back.” Clinton subsequently clarified her position, arguing that the process should be improved so those children who are genuine refugees would be recognized and treated as such. But the episode called into question whether Clinton can take Latino support for granted.

The new moves also may threaten to blur the contrasts that Democrats have been working hard to draw with Republicans. The rise of Donald Trump — with his call for mass deportations and fondness for insulting millions of immigrants — has helped drag the GOP ever rightward on immigration and has Democrats dreaming of a 2012-level victory among Latinos in 2016, a demographic edge that would be very hard for Republicans to overcome. Sharry suggested that if the Dem nominee doesn’t full-throatedly condemn the new policy, it could compromise the sharp contrast Dems have etched.

Indeed, one can imagine Trump taking credit for the stepped-up deportations at one of his rallies, arguing that, by forcing a conversation about the true nature of the immigrant threat (which he likes to claim credit for doing), he has forced spineless elites to confront it. That could theoretically make it harder for Clinton to align with Obama. “The administration will be accused of being Trump-like with immigrants,” Sharry said. “She’ll have to choose.”

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* CLINTON EXPANDS LEAD OVER SANDERS: A new CNN poll finds that Hillary Clinton has expanded her lead over Bernie Sanders among Democratic and Dem-leaning independent voters nationally, to 50-34. Note this shift after last Saturday’s Dem debate:

In interviews conducted before the debate, Sanders ran closer to Clinton, with 37% support to Clinton’s 45%. Among those interviewed after the debate, Clinton’s lead grew to 60% vs. Sanders’ 27%.

All of which makes it odder still that the Clinton camp privately lobbied the DNC for fewer debates. Clinton is a good debater!

* CLINTON HOLDS EDGE ON ECONOMY: Another nugget from the new CNN poll: 47 percent of Dems and Dem-leaning independents say Clinton is better able to handle economic issues, versus 39 percent who say that about Sanders. Clinton has not fully embraced the Sanders/Elizabeth Warren agenda on Wall Street and inequality, but she has perhaps moved in that direction sufficiently to defuse attacks on her as a pro-Wall Street Democrat.

* GOP SENATORS KEEP TED CRUZ AT ARM’S LENGTH: The Boston Globe notes an interesting factoid: Not one GOP Senator has yet endorsed Ted Cruz’s presidential run. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has three GOP Senate endorsements.

The big story is that no one really knows how this race is going to shake out, and even with Cruz emerging as a plausible nominee, he can’t get any of his colleagues to back him.

* RUBIO REASSURES NERVOUS DONORS: Politico reports that Marco Rubio reassured his supporters on a conference call that all the stories about him lagging in campaigning are wrong. Also:

The senator also told donors that he intended to keep up his criticisms of rival Ted Cruz, with whom he has been sparring recently over national security and immigration. Rubio, who has cast Cruz as not quite as ardent a foe of legalization as he says, said he would continue to portray the Texas senator as politically inconsistent.

Rubio has been trying to muddy the waters against Cruz’s attacks on him for backing comprehensive immigration reform by saying, in effect: “Cruz loves amnesty as much as I do!” We’ll see if it works.

 * MEET TED CRUZ’S FATHER: Kate Zezima scores a copy of Rafael Cruz’s new book:

The 76-year-old pastor warns that the United States could soon give in to secular humanism, a shift away from religion that Cruz said stems from socialism, social justice — which he said is a communist theory — and no moral absolutes….Cruz writes that there is no such thing as separation of church and state and it is not enshrined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence….He said the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 has led to the murder of millions.

It’s worth noting that Ted Cruz frequently talks about his father, who is a public figure in his own right, as his political inspiration.

* AND STOP TRUMP BEFORE HE DESTROYS THE GOP! George Will predicts utter disaster:

Conservatives’ highest priority now must be to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination…In 2016, a Trump nomination would not just mean another Democratic presidency. It would also mean the loss of…a conservative party as a constant presence in U.S. politics. One hundred and four years of history is in the balance. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020 either.

Not a word on on why Trump’s appeals appear to be working on large numbers of GOP voters and whether Republican politicians are partly to blame for helping create this situation.