President Obama had long endured the “deporter-in-chief” label, shedding it only in 2014 when he used executive action to stop the removal of millions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Then, over the recent holiday season, deportations began again. In weekend raids, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents targeted parents and children who had arrived from Central America, reigniting anger at the White House from within his own party.
The swift action, which caught many Democrats off-guard, threatens to blur what had been a stark contrast between the party's position and that espoused by leading Republican presidential candidates, most notably Donald Trump, who proposed tough ways to keep migrants out.
Obama administration officials have said they are stepping up the removal of those who had already been given deportation orders.
All three Democratic presidential candidates have distanced themselves from the White House action. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is demanding an audience with Obama.
Democrats on Capitol Hill conveyed their anger during a private session hosted by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and administration officials last week in the Capitol. One leading lawmaker, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), held a protest Friday outside the White House.
“We're upset,” Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Whittier), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in an interview. “I don't know who was advising that this was a smart move to make at the holidays. … Parents are keeping kids home from school, many are not going to work or are afraid to even leave the house to buy groceries. They're literally tearing apart families.”
The administration, though, has made it clear there will be no immediate slowdown of the operation that resulted in the apprehension of 121 adults and children last weekend.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged “the reality of the pain” the removals cause families. But he framed the operation as part of a broader strategy, announced with Obama's executive action in 2014, to prevent another surge of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America.
In the summer of 2014, an unprecedented 68,000 unaccompanied minors from mostly Central American countries showed up at the southern border, overwhelming authorities. The new raids are focusing on parents and children who arrived that year.
A large number of families illegally crossed the border from Mexico last fall, setting off worries of a new influx in 2016.
“This should come as no surprise,” Johnson said in a lengthy statement last week. “I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
The tough move, though, threatens to erode the goodwill that Obama's executive actions created among the Latino and immigrant community after years of rising deportations under his administration.
Many Democrats view the Central Americans not as immigrants but refugees fleeing violence in Honduras and elsewhere, most recently El Salvador, where gang violence has flared. The two countries have rivaled for having the world's highest homicide rate.
Democrats have also criticized the federal family detention facilities along the border that serve as holding facilities while migrants await hearings or deportation, calling the centers unsuitable for children.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “believes the United States should give refuge to people fleeing persecution, and should be especially attentive to the needs of children,” said campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. “She believes we should not be conducting large-scale raids and roundups that sow fear and division in our communities.”
In a letter to Obama on Thursday, another top Democratic contender, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the action and urged the White House to provide temporary protection to the migrants.
“These raids contravene President Obama's directive to ‘more humanely' enforce our nation's immigration laws,” Sanders wrote.
As part of its broader strategy, the Department of Homeland Security has beefed up Border Patrol operations and cracked down on smuggling and trafficking rings. Congress approved $750 million in aid to the Central American
nations as part of the year-end budget deal to improve the underlying problems of poverty and public safety that cause many families to flee.
Though many of the raids have been underway in southeastern states, California's lawmakers have taken a particular interest in the issue.
At a Friday news conference, Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), an immigrant and the first Guatemalan American elected to Congress, urged restraint and a focus on deporting criminals.