On the eve of President Obama’s final State of the Union address, dozens of members of his own party condemned the raids — in which 121 adults and children were taken into custody over the New Year’s weekend — as a failed and inhumane effort to stem a tide of refugees fleeing violence in Central America. “We are gravely concerned,” the members wrote in a letter to the president, that the Department of Homeland Security “may have already removed mothers and children from the United States and returned them to violent and dangerous situations in their home countries.”
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/01/04/u-s-authorities-begin-raids-taking-121-illegal-immigrants-into-custody-over-the-weekend/"]U.S. authorities begin raids targeting Central American immigrants[/interstitial_link]
The letter and a planned press conference publicizing it so annoyed administration officials that they sent White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston to Capitol Hill for a tense midday meeting with a half-dozen House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Eggleston expressed concern about the letter and said it could hurt the administration’s strategy to get the Supreme Court to rule on a separate program, which has been blocked in the courts, to spare up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, people familiar with the session said.
But Eggleston had limited time to speak as members peppered him with questions about the recent deportation raids, the people said. “It wasn’t a convincing argument,” said one Democrat familiar with the discussion, who added that the White House seemed “rattled” and “frustrated” by the rising opposition to its policy within the party ranks.
The furor extended to the other side of the Capitol, where Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that he had spoken to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and that “I think you’re going to find a pause in these deportations.” Though Johnson’s agency declined to comment — and Senate aides later said Reid’s remark was not based on his discussion with Johnson — it showed how contentious the issue has become.
Obama has long had a difficult relationship with some Democrats and immigrant advocates over his deportation policies. The latest dispute has flared at a time when he is not only trying to seal his legacy with his final State of the Union address but has also sought to create a sharp contrast with Republicans over immigration policies. The president has denounced suggestions by GOP presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that they would deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and erect a wall along the Southwest border with Mexico to keep immigrants out.
Immigrant rights advocates have been outraged by the raids, which are the first large-scale effort to deport families who have fled violence in Central America. The Not1More campaign on Tuesday released a parody website asking for proposals for a “Deporter-in-Chief” wing of the Obama presidential library, including an installation about the raids on Central American families that it said have “led to a wave of panic in immigrant communities across the nation.”
The nationwide campaign, first reported by The Washington Post, is a key element of the administration’s response to the wave of Central American migrants fleeing drug and gang-related violence, along with poverty. 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.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-plans-raids-to-deport-families-who-surged-across-border/2015/12/23/034fc954-a9bd-11e5-8058-480b572b4aae_story.html"]U.S. plans raids to deport families who surged across border[/interstitial_link]
The administration decided to act in part because of a new spike in the number of illegal immigrants from the region in recent months. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents fanned out across Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, taking the immigrants into custody and bringing them to federal detention centers.
Of the 121 people detained in the New Year’s weekend enforcement actions, 77 have been deported, according to an ICE spokeswoman. Of the remainder, at least 12 family units — a parent with at least one child — have received stays of deportation, according to lawyers with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a national immigration lawyers coalition representing the detainees held at a family detention center in Dilley, Tex. Those with a stay include a 22-year-old house cleaner from El Salvador and her 7-year-old daughter, who were taken from Sterling, Va.
White House officials again stood by their enforcement operations this week, with press secretary Josh Earnest saying that “our policy will remain the same.” He emphasized that the Central American migrants have been granted due process in immigration courts — the administration has targeted only adults and children who have already been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge.
Administration officials emphasized on Tuesday that Obama’s announcement of executive actions on immigration in November 2014 included a pair of related initiatives. He announced a new program to defer the deportations of undocumented parents of U.S. citizens who had been in the country at least five years and an expansion of a similar program launched in 2012 for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. All told, up to 5 million undocumented people could be eligible for the programs.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/pre-dawn-raids-leave-us-immigrant-communities-paralyzed-with-fear/2016/01/08/5bdf664c-b412-11e5-a76a-0b5145e8679a_story.html"]Pre-dawn raids leave U.S. immigrant communities paralyzed with fear[/interstitial_link]
The White House defended the legality of the deferred action program based on “prosecutorial discretion,” under which law enforcement agencies with limited resources set priorities. On the same day, Johnson issued new guidelines to prioritize deportations, focusing on convicted criminals, people with ties to terrorist organization and recent border crossers.
Obama aides have emphasized that the Central American families fall into the last category. Eggleston’s meeting with the Democrats on Capitol Hill, officials said, was aimed at explaining the president’s executive actions and the deportation priorities and clarifying whether lawmakers wanted the administration to alter its policies or not enforce them. The concern within the administration is that if it failed to follow its own enforcement priorities, that could undermine the legal rationale for the deferred-action program, which has been blocked in federal court after Texas and 25 other states sued the administration, calling the moves unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court is weighing whether to hear this spring the administration’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that has blocked the deferred action program from being implemented.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-administration-seeks-supreme-court-involvement-in-immigration-case/2015/11/10/ce13d802-87bb-11e5-9a07-453018f9a0ec_story.html"]Obama to seek Supreme Court involvement in immigration case[/interstitial_link]
But those explanations fell far short for the dozens of House Democrats who signed the letter to Obama, which was first reported last week by The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and was organized primarily by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). The meeting with Eggleston managed to delay the news conference by several hours, but once the event began, the Democrats were unsparing.
“This president has no more valuable allies and friends than those of us who are standing here and those who signed that letter,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve been 99.9 percent with this president of the United States, but in this particular case, when this administration sows the seeds of terror throughout the immigrant community of the United States and millions of people are affected, that’s what I’m going to concern myself with.”
“We’re asking them to pause” the deportations, he added, and to “reconsider and make sure that nobody is sent to their deaths.”
Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis and David Montgomery contributed to this post.