President Obama’s new series of raids designed to arrest and deport illegal immigrant Central Americans could end up being a “disaster” for Democrats in the presidential election, pushing Hispanic voters to stay home rather than turn out to vote, activists said Wednesday.
The raids are a particular challenge for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has yet to personally denounce them. Given her checkered history on immigration, Latino activists said she must move quickly and forcefully to rebuke Mr. Obama if she hopes to energize Hispanic voters.
Indeed, other top Democrats are rushing to draw lines between themselves and their president, demanding he get ahold of what they hope is a rogue agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
“We expect heated calls for raids and deportation from the other side,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and top Hispanic leader. “Our party has rejected those calls, with good reason. Americans want order and legality in immigration, not deportations and families forcibly split apart or exiled.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the raids are designed to deport some of the illegal immigration parents and children from Central America who surged across the border in 2014, overwhelming his department. Forced to release the families at the time, he ordered his agents to go back and try to deport those who’ve already exhausted their appeals and have been ordered removed.
The raids, however, are proving to be an embarrassment, both politically and legally. Immigration lawyers said Wednesday they’ve already managed to halt deportations for four families, with judges ruling the government short-circuited the process the immigrants should have been afforded. Another four appeals are pending.
Lawyers argued the illegal immigrants had legitimate asylum claims they were unable to make in court.
The lawyers also said agents didn’t show warrants before entering homes and are refusing to let some of the illegal immigrants meet with lawyers now to discuss their cases.
In the wake of the raids, all of the top Democratic presidential candidates have been critical, with Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley forcefully denouncing the raids as inhumane. Activists, though, panned Mrs. Clinton’s statement as the weakest, since it came not from her but from a spokesperson, and only said she has “real concerns.”
“The Democratic candidates have to denounce this, and they have to do it forcefully. I think O’Malley has; Sanders has somewhat. I think Clinton has been somewhat tepid,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund. “This isn’t just ordinary immigration operations, this is cutting into the heart of what it means to be a country that protects people. We need to see more from Secretary Clinton; we need to see it in her words. And if anybody tries to defend these policies, they’re going to see a backlash.”
Ryan Campbell, communications director for the DRM Action Coalition, which advocates for Dreamers, or illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, said Mrs. Clinton’s tepid response to the raids follows her initial reaction to the Central American surge in 2014, when she said they should be deported as quickly as possible — a sentiment that didn’t go over well with immigration-minded voters.
“She has given a criticism of the latest round of deportations, but it is comparatively light compared to O’Malley and Sanders, so she could see more demonstrations at her rallies from immigrant rights organizations who believe that she is the worst choice among the three candidates for the Democratic nomination, especially with her ties to the Obama administration, as the title ‘deporter in chief’ will be thrown around more,” Mr. Campbell said.
The White House said the decision to conduct the raids was made by career professionals at Homeland Security, but press secretary Josh Earnest still embraced the raids Tuesday, calling them “consistent” with Mr. Obama’s approach to immigration.
“Politics did not factor into these kinds of enforcement decisions,” Mr. Earnest said.
He also insisted each of the 121 illegal immigrants arrested had exhausted due process reviews.
But advocates said that’s not turned out to be the case. The lawyers who won stays of deportation said their clients didn’t understand the process and weren’t aware they could appeal their orders of deportation.
“The federal government has denied their rights at every turn,” said Katie Shepherd, managing attorney for the alliance of four immigrant rights groups that are representing the families. “This is the latest in the long line of abhorrent government actions that make it clear that our government fails to understand that these individuals are asylum-seekers fleeing violence and seeking protection in the United States.”
Of the 11 families the group has interviewed at the Texas detention center where they’re being held, only one has been deported.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the specifics of the cases but said it had only targeted illegal immigrants who’d already exhausted their appeals.
As the raids become better known within immigrant communities, Ms. Tramonte said Hispanic voters may end up punishing the Democrats’ presidential nominee by staying home in November as an expression of frustration with Mr. Obama.
“If it was November right now, this would be a disaster for the Democratic Party,” Ms. Tramonte said.
Mr. Campbell said it could go either way — it’s possible the raids spur higher turnout because they remind voters of what’s at stake with the next president, but they could also serve to discourage voters fed up with broken promises from Mr. Obama. Mr. Campbell said he leans toward the discouragement hypothesis.
“Obama promised to fix immigration in his first year, but it’s been the issue that he has consistently sacrificed, often for political leverage that never came even after record-setting deportations,” he said. “Obama and his family have reaped the benefits of some of the more generous aspects of our and other countries’ immigration systems. If he became the ‘deporter in chief,’ who is there to trust?”
But Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, which has vowed to try to naturalize and register 1 million new voters ahead of the election, predicted a more mobilized electorate this year, spurred by deportation-heavy rhetoric from GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
“When you hit the Latino electorate with a stick, they always get mad, stand up and punch back hard. And they are getting better and better at counterpunching. In 2016 it’s looking like this will greatly benefit the Democrats,” he said. “Come November the Republican candidate will again be talking about how they self-deported from the White House!”
Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to see an immigration crackdown, said he doubts Hispanic voters will sit out the election over these raids, and said the backlash among activists is an overreaction.
He said candidates who criticize 121 deportations, out of a population of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who jumped the border over the last couple of years, is signaling they don’t believe in enforcement.
“This really is a little piddling enforcement action, and if Hillary and others are against this, they’re basically against enforcement of immigration laws period. This really is a low bar,” he said.
He said Mrs. Clinton, the Democrats’ likely nominee, needs to be careful in criticizing Mr. Obama’s actions too harshly because it could cost her votes in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.