House Democrats laid into key administration officials during a closed-door meeting Thursday for launching deportation raids without warning, targeting undocumented immigrants who the critics said were Central Americans fleeing violence in their homelands.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called a meeting in her chambers of about 20 Democrats, many of them from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, during which the lawmakers chastised Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz for seeking to deport Central American migrants they say should have been treated as refugees, and for spreading fear through immigrant communities that even worse measures were coming.
“We made very clear to this administration how disappointed and how disillusioned we are that they would take these actions not by alerting us – they should do it in consultation with us,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was in the meeting. “When Donald Trump is claiming victory of an action of this president, Obama — he’s saying ‘I made Obama do it’ – it tells you how destructive” it is.
The meeting was organized after Gutierrez and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, approached Pelosi on Wednesday. Authorities began rounding up Central American migrants with deportation orders over New Year’s weekend, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Monday that 121 adults and children had been apprehended.
“I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration,” Johnson said at the time. “If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.”
According to lawmakers in the meeting, Munoz explained to them that the administration decided to launch the wave of deportations because they charted the numbers of Central American migrants as growing when they should have been falling, suggesting a surge in people fleeing violence would continue.
But House Democrats argue that the wave of Central American migrants coming into the United States, even if they are crossing the southern border, are no ordinary immigrants.
“This is not an immigration issue, this is a refugee issue,” Gutierrez said, pointing out that the migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were fleeing rape, exploitation and human smuggling. “This is a hemispheric problem of the Western hemisphere, and we need to deal with it as a refugee issue and take it out of our normal political process.”
Lofgren, who worked an immigration lawyer, said the problem in many of the deportation cases was systemic: Many of the Central American migrants simply don’t know they can try to claim refugee status when they arrive, and because the civil immigration law don’t guarantee a right to counsel, they aren’t getting good advice as they are moved through the deportation process.
Most of the handful of those who have appealed their deportation orders have had them stayed, Lofgren added.
“There’s a real due process problem,” Lofgren said. “Now that problem is inherent in the system but if you’re an economic migrant, the worst case is an economic ramification, but in this case it’s a lethal result.”
The United Nations Protocol related to the Status of the Refugees, to which the United States is a party, defines a refugee as a person with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Pelosi, Lofgren, Gutierrez and their colleagues argue that the violence in Central America means the people fleeing the region should be treated the way Syrian refugees are being treated when they arrive in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.
“It isn’t about your right to come to the United States of America, it’s about your right to be able to seek refuge and not to be murdered,” Gutierrez said, noting that the United States shouldn’t have to shelter all the Central Americans who arrive — but shouldn’t be sending them back home.
Earlier on Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) sent a letter to President Obama urging him to extend temporary protected status to the Central American families being targeted in the raids. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have also voiced concerns over the deportations.
The administration has not indicated any intention to pull back on the deportations. But even if officials do take steps to change course in the days ahead, many fear significant damage has already been done.
Democrats argued that if they had been consulted, they could have helped with informing communities about the coming raids, lessening the panic that resulted when people heard that raids were coming through a Washington Post report published just before Christmas.
According to lawmakers in the meeting, Munoz said the administration never intended for information about the raids to be leaked to the press. But Gutierrez believes the administration had every intention warn other Central Americans not to come.
“There is fear throughout the immigrant community and it doesn’t matter – there are raids in people’s minds that are going on that are not happening,” Gutierrez said. “But people believe they are happening.”