Immigrant advocacy groups on Friday condemned reported plans by the Obama administration to launch a new series of raids against illegal immigrant families from Central America.
Such an effort, the groups said, would send panic through Latino communities, unfairly target victims of violence and poverty, and turn Latino voters against likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while not confirming specific plans for new raids, said Friday that they must “enforce the law” and that their “current operations” and “enforcement priorities” will focus on deporting three kinds of illegal immigrants: convicted criminals, those who threaten public safety and “recent border crossers,” including families.
In a statement, senior ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said that to promote border security, “our priorities include those apprehended crossing the border illegally after Jan. 1, 2014,” including single adults and those with children. She said any operations would be limited to those who have been ordered deported and have no pending appeals or asylum claims, and that officials would avoid detaining people at schools, hospitals and churches.
The statement followed news reports this week that ICE was preparing to repeat a controversial program in which a series of raids last December and early January led to 121 women and children from Central America being detained in North Carolina, Georgia and other states. Some were immediately deported. The actions produced an outcry from immigrant groups and a number of Democrats, including Clinton.
The new ICE plans appear to be in response to the continued flow of illegal families from Central America across the border. Between October and March, border patrol agents detained more than 32,000 families at the border, more than double the number for the same period the previous fiscal year. A surge of minors and families crossing the border began in 2013.
Advocates said the Obama administration was sending a callous and confusing signal to immigrant communities, approving policies that can send vulnerable women and children back to countries plagued by gangs and violent crime even as he proposes executive actions to shield those who have been here longer from deportation.
“The president is sending a message that he doesn’t care about our community, and it is going to have a political price,” Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland and Virginia, said Friday.
With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump vowing to build a wall across the Mexican border and deport all estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, Torres said, Latinos “are not going to vote for Trump, so what option do they have? They’re going to stay home.”
CASA and other groups in the Washington area, home to tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees from Central America, said they were preparing to help families who might be targeted in coming raids. CASA officials said they are setting up 24-hour hotlines, legal referrals and workshops about immigrants’ rights.
Simon Sandoval Moschenberg, an immigration lawyer from the Center for Legal Justice in Falls Church, Va., predicted that the reports of possible raids would send “fear and panic” through Latino communities. After the raids early this year, he said, some undocumented parents kept their children home from school, and others lost their jobs.
“Our advice is to keep calm and don’t panic,” Sandoval Moschenberg said. He said the reported raids were aimed only at a “narrow slice” of the immigrant community and that the great majority of long-term illegal immigrants are “at no greater risk” than before.
Although ICE officials said no families would be targeted for raids if they had already filed appeals for relief or asylum, Torres and Sandoval Moschenberg pointed out that many Central American families could potentially qualify for deportation relief or political asylum because of the high levels of violence in their homelands.
Most of those who were able to obtain legal help after being arrested in the December-January raids received temporary deportation relief and are still in federal custody.