WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Monday defended its deportation tactics and confirmed it has begun raids on families, despite Democratic candidates and immigrant advocates saying officials could be sending mothers and children to their deaths.
"This should come as no surprise," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
The Department of Homeland Security began this weekend to conduct deportation raids that picked up 121 people, including children. All of them had exhausted their legal options to remain in the country after entering without authorization sometime after May 1, 2014, according to Johnson. Most of them are expected to be deported to Central America.
Immigration activists say it's a dangerous and inhumane action, given the high levels of violence in Central America -- the homicide rate in El Salvador jumped 70 percent last year -- and that the current asylum-screening system can exclude some families who would be genuinely in danger at home.
Johnson referred to the raids as "enforcement operations," and said they "will continue to occur as appropriate."
He said that "given the sensitive nature of taking into custody and removing families with children, a number of precautions were taken," including sending out "a number of female agents" from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and medical personnel.
"ICE exercised prosecutorial discretion in a number of cases for health or other personal reasons," he added, without specifying the number of families that might have been spared.
It's a complicated situation for the White House, which is fighting for undocumented parents to remain in the U.S. with their children who are citizens or legal permanent residents, and simultaneously deporting undocumented families that arrived more recently.
The number of mothers and children crossing the border went down last year after a surge in 2014, but has crept up again in recent months. In October and November, border agents apprehended about 12,500 family units at the southwest border -- a massive increase from the same period the year before, when they took in about 4,600 families.
Minors traveling without parents are also coming in at higher numbers. Border agents apprehended about 10,600 of them in October and November, compared to about 5,100 during those months in 2014.
Some of them were granted asylum or other relief to remain in the U.S. But others weren't, and as recent border-crossers, they fall within the administration's priorities for deportation. DHS officials have argued that an individual isn't exempt from being subject to removal just because he or she is part of a family.
There are concerns that people in Central America may be getting a different message -- that they can come to the U.S. and stay -- and that it is driving more unauthorized immigration. Republicans continue to insist the Obama administration is refusing to enforce immigration law, or to adequately police the southern border.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday during a press briefing that the actions had nothing to do with those claims.
"I assure you that politics did not factor in these kinds of enforcement decisions," he said.
Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have said they disagree with the decision to conduct raids on Central American families. A spokeswoman for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that the candidate "believes we should not be conducting large-scale raids and roundups that sow fear and division in our communities." Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley also criticized the actions.
"You know, what the hell have we come to as a country that you talk about rounding up women and children fleeing death gangs at Christmas time?" O'Malley said on Monday, referring to the fact that the plans for raids were first reported just before the holiday.
More than 160 civil rights, immigration and other advocacy groups signed onto a letter last week asking President Barack Obama "to renounce the use of such harsh tactics against this incredibly vulnerable group." The groups -- which included the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the ACLU and National Organization for Women -- said that many of the families hadn't been able to present a case for relief because they lacked legal representation and/or were ordered for deportation in absentia.
On Monday, about 150 groups wrote to DHS and the Justice Department arguing the raids violate civil rights statutes protecting individuals with disabilities, since many of the women and children suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. That letter was spearheaded by Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, and received signatures from a wide array of rights groups, including the AFL-CIO.
Johnson said he knows "there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough."
"I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause," he continued. "But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity."
At the same time, Johnson hinted at plans to allow more Central Americans to come to the U.S. legally. He said the government would "make a more formal announcement soon" on creating and expanding ways for people to apply within the countries to come to the U.S. as refugees.
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