More than 90 Congressional Democrats will release a letter Tuesday criticizing President Obama's recent immigration raids, ramping up calls from the party's 2016 presidential candidates to stop deporting Central American families who have exhausted legal appeals for asylum.
"We are gravely concerned that DHS may have already removed mothers and children from the United States and returned them to violent and dangerous situations in their home countries," the signers wrote, calling for the Department of Homeland Security to suspend operations that targeted 121 illegal immigrants in early January.
Record levels of people illegally entering the United States from Central America made headlines in 2014, but deceased in 2015 until late last year. Many are children: more than 12,500 families were apprehended in October and November, as well as more than 10,500 unaccompanied minors.
Many are fleeing gang- and drug-related violence in El Salvador and Honduras, home to the world's highest and third-highest homicide rates. Advocates argue that those migrants should be treated as refugees with Temporary Protected Status, not illegal immigrants, and that they face danger if deported.
The letter, which Politico obtained before its release, praises the Obama administration's "fundamental American values" in its concern for refugees from the Middle East, but criticizes the White House for deporting Central American migrants and not coming up with a "comprehensive refugee solution," or a roadmap to regional stability. Without one, opponents say that Central American migrants will keep attempting the dangerous journey, with or without raids. Politico's Seung Min Kim wrote:
The White House and other administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, have defended the raids as a necessary deterrent tactic, particularly with the number of illegal migration from Central America rising in the last several months. They have also emphasized that the undocumented immigrants have been ordered deported by a judge and have exhausted all legal appeals.
"This was an announcement to send a message to Central America: Don't come here," California Rep. Zoe Lofgren said last week. "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."
Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley echoed humanitarian concern for migrants as they campaigned in Iowa, ahead of the state's party caucuses on Feb. 1. Polls show Ms. Clinton with a thin edge over Sanders, and O'Malley in a distant third.
"I do not think the raids are an appropriate tool to enforce the immigration laws. In fact, I think they are divisive, they are sowing discord and fear," Clinton said at the Iowa Brown and Black forum on Monday, which was also attended by Sanders and O'Malley.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign released a statement calling to end the raids, improve programs for migrants awaiting trial, and boost development in Latin America.
"We have a moral responsibility," Sanders told listeners at the forum, which is focused on concerns of African-Americans and Latinos. "What refugee status is about is to make sure that people are not forced to return to communities where their lives may be in danger."
On Saturday, Sanders criticized Republican candidate Donald Trump in particular, promising to "do everything I can to stand up to the Donald Trumps of the world and their bigotry and their xenophobia." Trump has praised the raids and claimed that his anti-immigrant rhetoric contributed to them.
Despite the criticism, including from House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, (D) of Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, (D) of Nevada, the White House has resisted calls to call off the raids.
"This should come as no surprise," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement issued last Monday. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.