Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The tensions are escalating between Democrats and the Obama administration over stepped up deportation raids — and that could put more pressure on Hillary Clinton to come out against them forcefully and unequivocally, which immigration advocates have been urging her to do.

House Democrats have begun circulating a letter calling on the administration to halt the raids and to grant Temporary Protected Status to families who are being targeted by them, until the administration can convincingly guarantee that those being deported won’t face violence in their home countries, I’m told.

“The idea is to call upon the president to halt this crackdown on mothers and kids who are fleeing violence in Central America,” Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen, one of the sponsors of the letter, tells me, adding that the letter asks the administration to “halt this process so they can ensure that mothers and children won’t be sent back to face persecution or torture or death.”

The Post first reported just before Christmas that the Department of Homeland Security was preparing to target for deportation “hundreds” of the more than 100,000 families who made the journey from Central American countries to the U.S. since the beginning of 2014. This migration attracted less attention than the news of unaccompanied minors crossing the border but has nonetheless created another fiendishly difficult problem for the administration.

DHS announced earlier this week that some 121 individuals had been detained as part of these operations and are being processed for removal. These deportations, DHS said, are consistent with policy that has been in place since November of 2014, when the administration announced a new set of priorities for removal that would target criminals and threats to public safety — and recent border crossers, a group that DHS says includes the families and children currently being targeted. (This set of new priorities also included Obama’s new policy for granting deportation relief to millions of unauthorized immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, which is tied up in the courts.)

DHS argued that this new set of priorities clearly articulated that in addition to granting deportation relief to some longtime residents, the administration would continue securing the border, which means deporting the most recent arrivals. DHS also argued that those adults and children newly targeted for deportation qualify for this treatment and received a fair process — they are all recent crossers, they have already been issued final removal orders by an immigration court, and they have exhausted all remaining legal remedies.

But the letter from Democrats argues — as some immigration advocates have been doing in recent days — that even if these people have received an adequate process, they should not be legally classified as illegal border crossers, but rather reclassified as refugees, and given “Temporary Protected Status.”

“A final administrative removal order does not necessarily mean that these mothers and children do not have legitimate claims for refugee protection,” says the letter, which is also being spearheaded by Dem Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, Zoe Lofgren and Luis Gutierrez. “We are gravely concerned that DHS may have already removed mothers and children from the United States and returned them to violent and dangerous situations in their home countries.”

Van Hollen declined to estimate how many signatures the letter would ultimately garner. But he said: “I think you’ll see a good cross section of the caucus supporting it.”

This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, the administration is right to argue that the current removals are consistent with the priorities it announced in 2014. The new deportations only target those who recently crossed the border, and thus, are considered priorities for removal. But at the same time, the news of the deportations has snowballed out of control, causing rumors to spread in immigrant communities that undocumented immigrants who had been here longer and thus were considered low priorities for removal, or even some who had received temporary deportation relief as DREAMers, could now be targeted for removal by enforcement agents.

What’s more, some Democrats think the process that evaluates whether these new deportation targets have a valid claim to refugee status, based on the conditions they were fleeing, is flawed. Still other advocates want a blanket grant of temporary protected status for those new arrivals, due to the violence they would face upon repatriation. But the administration worries that granting recent border-crossers such temporary status could send a message that could encourage more people to undertake the treacherous journey northward.

At some point, Hillary Clinton may have to take a side in this dispute. Her campaign has approached the topic carefully, claiming “concerns” about the deportations, while stressing that “it is critical that everyone has a full and fair hearing, and that our country provides refuge to those that need it.”

But her stance seems to straddle the fundamental divide that is developing in response to the situation: The administration thinks the right policy is to continue deportations in keeping with the priorities it has already articulated, while an increasing number of Democrats, including Clinton rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, believe that the recent arrivals deserve new, protective status. Those two positions are at odds. And Clinton probably will need to declare her position in this dispute sooner rather than later.