WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats confronted White House officials on Thursday over holiday-season raids seeking Central American immigrants for deportation, accusing the administration of spreading terror through immigrant communities.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said that President Barack Obama risks all the goodwill he has built up over the last year through his executive actions sparing millions from deportation, actions now tied up in court. And he complained that the administration did not alert congressional allies before conducting the raids, with first became public when The Washington Post published a story about the plans just before Christmas.
Gutierrez and other lawmakers raised those complaints and others during a meeting with administration officials, including Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council.
"In the Hispanic Caucus there's a real sense of outrage," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said he pointed out to Munoz that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, running on an anti-immigrant platform, has praised the raids — and taken credit for them.
"Look, what I said to her is, I said, 'Think about it a moment. Donald Trump is praising your public policy on immigration. You should need no further evidence of how wrong it is,'" Gutierrez said.
A White House spokesman, Peter Boogaard, declined to comment beyond a statement Monday issued by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. In that statement, Johnson said that 121 people with final orders of removal, who had exhausted their legal claims and remedies, had been targeted for removal.
"This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed," Johnson said.
Despite the small numbers involved Democrats say the publicity around the holiday-season raids has reverberated throughout immigrant communities. And several of the immigrants have subsequently gotten their removals put on hold, prompting Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to argue that they need more lawyers and more help.
"We need to obey our laws. But we also want to, in obeying our laws, make sure that the process is fair to people," Pelosi said Thursday.
The Center for American Progress, traditionally a close administration ally, also released a statement criticizing the raids.
The planned deportations come as administration officials worry about another surge of Central American women, children and families at the southern border as people flee violence and persecution in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. A similar situation consumed the attention of Congress and the administration in the summer of 2014, though Congress never acted on an emergency budget request and policy changes sought by the administration. The crisis subsequently receded from public view as the number of arrivals dropped, but they are back on the rise.
Democrats said administration officials pointed to that increase in justifying the raids.
"This was an announcement to send a message to Central America: Don't come here," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "But if your mother, your father and your brother have just been murdered, the message is not going to do it and that is the problem."