ATLANTA — It is quiet now, a little too quiet, along the suburban avenues lined with Salvadoran pupusa shops and Guatemalan bakeries. The stores are emptier than usual, and some of the waitresses and clerks are not showing up at work. Everyone seems to know about last weekend’s raids, when immigration agents pounded on doors before dawn and took mothers and children away.
The deportations have brought the divisive issue of illegal immigration once again to the political forefront. The raids were the first large-scale effort to deport families who had fled violence and poverty in Central America in 2014 and 2015. More than 100,000 families with adults and children crossed the southwestern border.
Despite an uproar from liberal Democrats and Latino advocacy groups, administration officials said Friday that they intend to continue the raids, hoping to send a signal and prevent a repeat of the huge surge in illegal border crossings. Although the numbers dipped last spring, a new spike saw more than 10,000 children reach the border in October and November alone.
“The enforcement strategy and priorities that the administration has articulated are not going to change,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. “Individuals who recently crossed the border are priorities for removal.”
Earnest noted that after immigration reform efforts failed in Congress, Obama acted on his own to shield from deportation 700,000 young illegal immigrants who had been here for years. “You have a president of the United States who has worked hard to use his own executive authority to try to make the process more fair,” he said.
Some Democratic leaders, including House Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), have expressed concern about the raids, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are calling on Obama to offer affected families temporary legal protection.
“We have a refugee crisis, not an immigration problem,” Gutierrez said at a rally outside the White House on Friday. Alluding to the epidemic of drugs and gang violence that experts say is fueling the exodus from Central America, Gutierrez said, “We, too, are responsible.”
In all, 121 mothers and children were detained in three states last weekend and sent to federal detention facilities, U.S. officials say. Federal officials said the families targeted for deportation had been processed by immigration courts.
The raids sowed fear and confusion in communities including Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and the greater Washington region, home to tens of thousands of Central Americans. At a time when some Republican presidential hopefuls talk of ridding the country of all of its 11 million illegal immigrants, the crackdown by a Democratic administration has many wondering if they, too, will be targeted.
“People are very confused,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. “They hear there are raids going on, but they don’t know why, and they worry they will be affected, too.”
Rene Morales was jolted awake just after 4 a.m. last Saturday in the leafy Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain. His doorbell was buzzing, and someone was pounding on the door. He peered out the window to see a dozen armed federal agents standing among rose bushes and Christmas lights.
They had come for his sister Rosa Vargas and her children, who fled their native Guatemala and walked across the Texas border in July 2014. Morales said Vargas, 36, decided to head north after she witnessed a murder and was threatened by gang members.
“The whole family agreed she would be better off leaving, that she should come here because she would be safe in America,” said Morales, 30, a carpenter with temporary legal status. He said Vargas was issued a work permit and a Social Security number when she was released from border detention in 2014 and found work cleaning houses in Atlanta after coming to live with him.
The agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement “made me wait outside while they went upstairs,” Morales said. “They said they had an order from a judge. They didn’t hurt anyone, but they shouted a lot.”
After allowing the family to dress and gather a few belongings, the agents put Vargas, 17-year-old Juan and 11-year-old Dankilia into vans and drove off, Morales said. Vargas’s older daughter was allowed to stay behind with her year-old son, who was born in the United States.
By Monday, the others were in a detention center in Texas awaiting deportation, while a lawyer tried to file an emergency appeal.
“Together we were a family, and we made this house a home,” Morales said. “Now there is nothing.”
The raids in the greater Atlanta area were quick, quiet and isolated, advocates said, targeting perhaps a dozen individual homes and apartments across a large metropolitan region. In each case, ICE officials said, the families had been processed by immigration courts, where they had either been denied special relief from deportation or had not applied for it.
Since the raids, advocacy groups here and elsewhere have set up hotlines, held emergency neighborhood meetings and put out website alerts telling people they have the right not to open their doors to ICE agents or provide them with information. Legal aid groups have been deluged with calls from frantic immigrants who think agents are headed their way.
“Of course we are all worried,” said Francisco Perez, a bakery owner from Guatemala who has been here for 12 years. “One hears that now they are separating families, parents from children, even people with work permits. One feels so defenseless.”
Atlanta’s Latino population has a well-established economic niche but a tense relationship with police and government authorities, advocates say. There have been long-running battles over legal issues such as what immigration status one needs to obtain a driver’s license.
Georgia is one of several states that have passed tough laws limiting the rights of noncitizens, and numerous police departments here have formal agreements to inform ICE when an illegal immigrant is arrested.
Most illegal immigrants in the state are Mexicans who migrated here to pick crops or work in poultry plants and factories. But a growing minority have arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, driven in part by soaring rates of murder and gang violence back home.
Many Central American children and mothers who arrived in the recent border surge have told officials they were trying to escape violence; some have applied for political asylum or other forms of deportation relief. Those cases have been working their way through immigration courts, but legal aid lawyers say few have been finalized.
“The Obama administration is putting families and children on the same level as criminals and terrorists,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington-based legal aid agency. “Even if these families do have final deportation orders and their window for appeal has expired, do we know if they had fair hearings, or had access to counsel, or understood the process?”
In one of the raids conducted last weekend, agents took a woman who had been in their custody for a month back to her house outside Atlanta to pick up her two young sons so that all three could be sent to a deportation center in Texas.
Dominga Rivas, 27, a restaurant cook from El Salvador, had been stopped by police for making a wrong turn. She was reported to ICE as an illegal immigrant and handed over to federal agents. When she arrived home early Saturday, her sons, ages 4 and 7, were still sleeping, relatives said.
“The boys were frightened and Dominga was crying,” said her sister, Doris Rivas, 33, a hairdresser who has temporary legal status. “They sent a woman agent to the bedroom and gave them five minutes to get dressed and put their things in a plastic bag. It was such an ugly thing to see.”
Rivas said her sister fled El Salvador in 2014 because her abusive ex-husband had become involved with gangs and threatened to kill her. She applied for asylum after reaching the United States but was turned down.
“If she goes back, her life will be in danger, and so will the boys’, because soon the gangs will start pressuring them to join or be killed,” Rivas said. “Nobody can survive in my country now.”