The Obama White House is working frantically to quell the political outrage among immigration rights advocates and Latino leaders who say they feel betrayed by a recent series of deportation raids launched by the administration, mostly against women and children from Central America.
While the raids continue with administration support, White House aides announced an expanded State Department partnership with the United Nations to resettle Central American refugees in the United States and elsewhere, and Vice President Biden traveled to the region last week to meet with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“The goal of this effort is to provide a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey many are currently taking in the hands of human smugglers,” said White House spokesman Peter Boogaard. “Expanding resettlement opportunities is a key part of our broader response to the situation” in the three nations, he said.
The administration’s decision to launch the raids has reopened old wounds between the White House and many Latino communities, and it has compromised the president’s efforts to create an election-year contrast with Republicans on immigration.
U.S. officials said the operations are aimed at sending a strong message of deterrence to Central American families and avoiding a repeat of the 2014 border crisis when an influx of tens of thousands of migrants from the region overwhelmed patrol stations on the Mexican border.
But growing blowback from congressional Democrats and advocacy groups has put the White House on the defensive just 14 months after President Obama sought to repair strained relations with Latino voters by taking unilateral steps to ease the deportation threat for those with deep ties to the United States. The centerpiece of that program — which would allow up to 5 million illegal immigrants to gain work permits without fear of being deported — has been suspended by a federal judge who is reviewing a lawsuit over its constitutionality.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court announced it will rule this spring on the Obama administration’s appeal of the lower court’s injunction that has delayed the deferred action program for nearly a year. Administration officials have said they hope to get that program started before Obama leaves office, while the Republican candidates for president have vowed to overturn it.
Administration officials fear that a failure to enforce the deportation orders against the Central American families would undermine their legal rationale for the deferred action program, which is based on the concept of “prosecutorial discretion.” DHS officials said the government has limited resources for immigration enforcement and they have prioritized the removals of felons, people with terrorist ties and recent border crossers who do not qualify for aslyum protections.
The Obama White House has publicly supported the raids by the Department of Homeland Security, which this month apprehended 121 Central Americans with outstanding deportation orders in several states. In private meetings last week, DHS officials told immigrant rights advocates that they are considering expanding the raids to include minors who entered the country on their own, a move to further boost deterrence efforts, according to several people involved in the talks.
Also reportedly under consideration for removal are Central Americans who failed to show up for their court hearings and have been ordered out of the country in absentia, those sources said. DHS officials declined to comment on the private meetings.
Disappointed immigration reform advocates compared the current tactics to those employed by the George W. Bush administration, which ramped up raids on homes and workplaces in Bush’s final years in office. They expressed bewilderment at the move in light of Obama’s staunch defense of Muslim refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. The president harshly criticized the idea, advanced by some GOP presidential candidates, that the United States should temporarily ban Muslim refugees from entering the United States over fears of terrorism.
Though relatively small in scale — 77 people have been deported — the DHS raids have gained resonance for their focus on women and children who have fled nations with soaring rates of gang violence, drug cartels and domestic abuse.
“When President Obama stood up for the [Syrian] refugee program and stood up against the blanket racism directed at anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern or Muslim, I think people were happy,” said Paromita Shah, associate director off the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “But they can’t square it with what he is doing now. We’re asking ourselves, ‘Why are we here at this point? Why did he have to do this?’ ”
A group of 140 House Democrats sent a letter to Obama demanding that he halt the operations, and the three major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, have denounced the raids. At a demonstration outside the White House last week, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) joined protesters, including one who held up a news photograph from 2000 of a federal agent pointing a rifle at Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old from Cuba who was living in Miami.
Obama aides scrambled to tamp down the criticism from their traditional allies. A top White House lawyer met on the afternoon of Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday with half a dozen House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Biden’s meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras focused on $750 million in newly allocated developmental aid from the United States that had been promised after the 2014 border crisis.
In an interview, a senior administration official blamed the public outcry on sensationalized news coverage and a climate of fear fostered by GOP campaign rhetoric. Leading Republican presidential candidates, including real estate magnate Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have pledged to deport all of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and build a wall to keep them out.
“It’s the combination of hysteria before anything happened and a moment when there’s a lot of talk about deportation coming from folks in the political sphere,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s an atmosphere of high emotion, and that emotion has been reflected in ways that are understandable. . . . But there’s just a gulf between that conversation and the reality of the enforcement that has taken place.”
Immigrant rights groups have been skeptical of the Obama administration since deportations reached a record high of more than 400,000 per year by the end of his first term.
Under pressure from Democrats to scale back, Obama moved to reshape immigration policies through executive action after Congress failed to pass a comprehensive border-control bill in 2014. Days after the midterm elections, the president announced a new program to defer the deportations of up to 5 million illegal immigrants — most of them parents of U.S. citizens who have lived in the United States at least five years.
At the same time, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said his agency would focus its enforcement operations on the highest priorities.
White House officials pointed to the 231,000 deportations in 2015, the lowest level of Obama’s tenure, as evidence that the administration is pursuing more humane policies.
Each of the Central Americans apprehended this month had been ruled ineligible for asylum by an immigration judge and ordered deported, officials said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employed female agents to make arrests of female immigrants and limited the amount of tactical gear agents wore in order to minimize the anxiety in the community, the officials said.
Advocates applauded the beefed-up refugee resettlement program announced by Secretary of State John F. Kerry last week. But they said its creation served to highlight the disconnect between the nature of the immigration flow from Central America and the raids aimed at helping staunch it. Unlike previous generations of illegal immigrants, who came across the Southwest border seeking economic opportunity, the newer migrants are fleeing violence and physical abuse.
Furthermore, advocates contend that the administration’s focus on deportations as a deterrence strategy has lost potency. The number of Central American families crossing the Southwest border tripled in the final three months of 2015 compared with a year earlier, and the number of unaccompanied minors doubled, according to federal statistics.
“It seems that the fear in the community and the problems the raids have triggered far outweigh any perceived gains of deterrence,” said Royce Murray, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), while praising Kerry’s refugee plan, called on the administration to “immediately halt domestic immigration raids that fast-track the deportations of the very same families we are hoping to aid.”
For the immigrant communities, the raids have added to their frustration that Obama’s deferred action program has been blocked for nearly a year by a federal court judge who is considering a lawsuit from Texas and 25 other states over its constitutionality.
“Immigration enforcement is a fact of life,” said the administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “This administration was the first to establish a set of priorities and the first to act on those priorities. Some of the very people who saluted the priorities when they were issued are now saying DHS should not execute on them.”