Democratic presidential candidates on Thursday criticized the Obama administration’s plans to begin deporting potentially hundreds of families that arrived in the United States illegally since last year.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that federal immigration officials are preparing raids that would target the families and could begin as soon as January. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed the plans.
The news, arriving on the eve of the holidays, sparked concerns and outrage from Democrats and immigration advocates. They argued that the effort would target largely women and children fleeing violence from Central America, whom critics say should be treated as refugees.
“Hillary Clinton has real concerns about these reports, especially as families are coming together during this holiday season,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “She believes it is critical that everyone has a full and fair hearing, and that our country provides refuge to those that need it. And we should be guided by a spirit of humanity and generosity as we approach these issues.”
Her chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said he was “very disturbed” by the reports, adding: “As we spend time with our families this holiday season, we who are parents should ask ourselves what we would do if our children faced the danger and violence these children do? How far would we go to protect them?”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another Democratic presidential candidate, called for an end to “mindless deportations.”
“DHS’ Christmas Eve announcement that they are planning to launch mass holiday raids and deport families who risked their lives to flee violence in Central America is completely at odds with our character as a nation,” O’Malley said in a statement.
The issue of migrant families crossing the border since last year has been particularly tricky for Clinton. Though the former secretary of state has endorsed liberal immigration policies, Clinton drew criticism in 2014 when she said unaccompanied migrant children — coming here primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — “should be sent back” to their home countries. Clinton defended those comments earlier this year, arguing that it was important to send a message to families in Central America to not allow children to “take this very dangerous journey.”
Administration officials said the plans, which have not been finalized, are consistent with new deportation priorities announced last year. Now, federal immigration officials are focusing their deportation efforts on criminal immigrants and those who had recently crossed the border illegally.
“As [Homeland Security] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson has consistently said, our border is not open to illegal immigration,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said on Thursday. “If individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values.”
In an interview with POLITICO earlier this month, Johnson said Homeland Security officials were zeroing in on criminals and recent border-crossers, as opposed to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for a longer period of time.
DHS announced this week that federal immigration officials deported 235,413 immigrants from October 2014 to September 2015 — the lowest figure in at least eight years.
“We’re focusing more sharply on felons over families, so fewer deportations, but more focused on convicted criminals, more focused on apprehensions at the border,” Johnson said during the interview. “I’ve encouraged our immigration enforcement personnel to engage in a mission more like law enforcement.”
In the past two months, the number of families crossing the southern border illegally has risen sharply compared with the same period last year. Just over 12,500 families were apprehended in October and November, compared with 4,577 during the same two months in 2014. The planned raids would target immigrants who had already been ordered by an immigration judge to be removed from the United States, according to the Post report.
Separately, the numbers of children from Central America traveling alone has also spiked in recent months. In October and November, 10,588 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the southern border, according to federal officials — more than double the number of minors who tried to cross into the United States during the same period in 2014.
Immigration advocates reacted with outrage to the report of the Obama administration’s plans.
“These are mostly women and children fleeing violence. Surely the Obama administration has a better Christmas in mind than the threat of deportation raids,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “To punish these families for our lack of a functioning refugee program that meets the needs of Central America would be a moral tragedy.”
Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program of the Women’s Refugee Commission, called it “outrageous that the administration plans to conduct raids on families who have fled persecution and violence.”
“Instead of focusing on deporting families, the administration should finally recognize what this influx is about,” Brané said. “Refugees seeking protection at our border who, instead of being locked up, should be given a real chance to find a lawyer, understand how the process works, and make their case for asylum before a judge.”
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