- The Washington Times - Monday, January 4, 2016

Moving to belatedly counter another surge of illegal immigrants from Central America, the Department of Homeland Security has launched a series of raids to kick out some of the arrivals, Secretary Jeh Johnson said Monday, defending his move to enraged immigrant rights activists who say the Obama administration is being inhumane.

All told, 121 people were rounded up — a tiny fraction of the more than 110,000 Central American family members that sneaked into the country over the past year and a half, putting strains on the immigration system and on schools and authorities who have to educate and police the newcomers.

Mr. Johnson, who thought he had ended the surge in 2014 only to be stunned by another wave beginning last spring, said in a statement that enforcing the law in this case is the best way to send a message that the U.S. is serious about defending its borders.

He said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement focused the first round of raids on Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. Those they have caught are being prepared for flights back to their home countries.

“I know 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 said. “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.”

Immigrant rights activists were stunned. They said the move undercuts much of President Obama’s work over the past year to slow deportations and ease enforcement against illegal immigrants from Central America, who the administration says are fleeing extreme violence.

The matter has even bled into the Democratic presidential campaign, where former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley urged Mr. Johnson to cancel the raids.

He and other advocates said returning many of these families to Central America will put them back in the middle of economic despair, gang violence and troubled home lives that many of them were fleeing.

“There is no ‘careful’ way to round up and deport immigrants to potential violence. When the end result of removal is possibly their death, it doesn’t matter if ICE considers its targets a ‘priority,’” said Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the #Not1More campaign to stop deportations. “These raids are causing fear, confusion and panic and are an unacceptable tactic to enforce this country’s immigration laws.”

Word of the raids leaked in The Washington Post last week, giving activists a chance to strengthen defense efforts.

Advocates offered tips such as telling immigrants to refuse to answer the door for agents. Some churches announced that they would offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants and dared federal agents to violate the sanctity of houses of worship.

Officials are conducting the raids even though deportations have plummeted over the past few years. Mr. Obama, stung by criticism that he had become the “deporter in chief,” tried a softer approach by carving most illegal immigrants out of any danger of removal and saying he would focus only on serious criminals, national security threats and illegal immigrants who entered after 2013.

His softer approach, however, seemed to invite a wave of illegal immigrants, particularly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Hundreds of thousands of children traveling alone, and families — usually mothers with their children — surged into Texas over the past couple of years, pushed by violence and lack of prospects back home and drawn by the belief that they could get “permisos,” or free passes, from the Obama administration.

The unaccompanied children were quickly released, and most remain in the U.S. with little prospect that they will be deported anytime soon. But Mr. Johnson took a get-tough approach on the families, sending thousands of them straight into detention before they are quickly deported.

A federal judge this summer ordered changes, saying families, too, must be quickly released. At the time, Mr. Johnson’s aides argued that such a lax policy would lead to another surge. That prediction has been fulfilled: Fiscal year 2016 is on track for a record number of Central American families crossing the border illegally.

The Obama administration was late last year in starting its public relations campaign warning Central Americans not to attempt the dangerous journey.

Faced with the latest surge, Mr. Johnson ordered limited raids on those who arrived in the U.S. in May 2014 or later and those who had gone through immigration courts and had judges issue orders of removal. Those with pending asylum claims, or whose cases haven’t been resolved in the courts, weren’t to be touched.

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for stricter immigration enforcement, said 121 arrests is “pathetically inadequate” given the size of the problem.

She said the move could have some deterrent effect if Mr. Johnson keeps ordering more raids but that the biggest changes need to happen at the border, when the illegal crossers are first arrested.

“Until people believe that if they try to come in here illegally they’ll definitely be sent home quickly, it’s not going to have any effect,” she said.

Mr. Johnson said he is keeping the option of more raids and said nobody should have been surprised at this round because he has always said recent illegal immigrants are priorities for deportation.

Still, knowing a backlash to the raids would come, Mr. Johnson said he tried to limit the trauma to immigrants, including deploying female agents as part of the operations and having medical personnel on hand.

David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said those were the minimum steps and didn’t reduce the impact.

“A raid is a raid. Somebody coming to your home, whether they’re male or female, with a badge and a gun, is terrifying. There’s no way around it,” he said. “The bottom line is there’s no sensitive, nice way to deport somebody. There just isn’t.”

Mr. Leopold said the raids should spark a broader conversation over how to handle the surge from what has become known as the Northern Triangle of Central America.

“For the moment, we do have a situation where there are compelling exceptional factors in Central America, in the triangle,” he said. “Even if somebody does not technically qualify for asylum or release under the law, nevertheless, sending then back to the triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras — doesn’t mean they’re not being sent back to danger, to violence.”

He said part of the solution is a temporary reprieve from deportations to those countries. He said the U.S. should lead a regional effort to establish safe zones either in those nations, or nearby, so people can flee their homes but get to safety in the area rather than making the treacherous journey to the U.S.

“This is a situation that goes well beyond the immigration enforcement priorities of the border,” he said. “This is a regional problem and must be dealt with in a regional way.”

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