WASHINGTON — Latino advocates and leaders rallied outside the White House Friday morning to demand that President Obama stop a new policy of rounding up and deporting families who entered the United States illegally after fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
Amid rising concern among Democrats in Congress over the raids that began last week with 121 women and children detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in three states, the group asked that Obama show "moral leadership" and grant temporary protected status to the families, similar to what many Central American war refugees were given in the 1990s. "We have a refugee crisis, not an immigration problem," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, who said he was gathering support in Congress for a letter to the president asking him to stop the raids.
"Congress cannot sit idly by," Gutierrez said, adding, "We, too, are responsible" for the scourge of violence and drugs that plague Central America today.
Gutierrez said he and several other House Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met Thursday with top administration officials to express their anger over the raids. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) convened the meeting, which was attended by White House domestic policy director Cecilia Munoz, deputy Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
"They said they are seeing the numbers of people from Central America surging," Gutierrez said. "We told them, 'After all the work we've done together on this issue, why didn't you share with us that you were doing these raids? We could have worked together.' "
He said the officials "listened nicely and politely."
"But we suspect that nothing will change."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that while the administration is aware of the concerns, "enforcement strategy and priorities that the administration has articulated are not going to change."
"We have focused those enforcement efforts on high priority issues we've identified," he said. "That primarily is criminals as you might expect. That's important to keeping our communities safe. . .. The other area of priority that is important is to ensure that we are maintaining security at the border. That means individuals who recently crossed the border are priorities for removal."
The detained families were part of a surge of tens of thousands of Central Americans, many of them minors traveling alone, who have flooded the U.S. border in the last few years. Most were detained by immigration officials and eventually released to relatives while awaiting hearings in immigration courts. Administration officials said all those taken into custody since last week had received final deportation orders from a judge, although in some cases their relatives have said they were not aware of the orders. All were sent to federal detention facilities to await deportation.
The removal operations, made public by news reports in December, surprised immigration advocates after Obama had pledged in Nov. 2014 to prioritize the deportations of "felons not families." At the time, the president announced a series of executive actions to defer the deportations of 5 million undocumented immigrants and allow them a change to apply for a three-year work permit, but the new program has been blocked in federal court after being challenged by Texas and 25 other states. That case could be heard by the Supreme Court this spring.
The administration said the raids, which are focused on Central American families with removal orders from an immigration judge, were precipitated by a spike in undocumented families and unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border in recent months. Federal officials said they are hoping to curb the flow of what is a long, dangerous journey from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They emphasized that Obama's executive actions encompassed undocumented parents of U.S. citizens who have been in the country for at least five years, while newer arrivals were not included.
But immigrant rights advocates said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is conducting the removals, is targeting a vulnerable population, mostly women and children, who fled violence and poverty to come to the United States. Though immigration judges have ruled that these families do not qualify for political asylum, advocates contend that many of the families have not had fair hearings or adequate legal representation.
The raids have scrambled immigration politics, putting Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. Clinton had opened her campaign by promising to go farther than Obama has to allow many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the country. Republican candidates, including Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have promised to deport those here illegally and tighten border controls. Clinton has said she has some concerns about the raids, but she had not been specific, while Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, says they should end.
Trump, meanwhile, has claimed credit for pushing Obama to take stronger actions on the border at a time when Americans are anxious about foreign terrorism.
One of the speakers at Friday's rally was a 27-year-old woman from Maryland who gave her name only as Sandra. She said she had fled from Central America in 2013 with her four-year-old son and that both had now received deportation orders. "I am scared they will come knock on my door. . . I don't want to end up in a casket," the woman said, adding that several of her relatives had been murdered back home. If she and her son are sent back, she said, "it would be sending us to a certain death."
Other speakers Friday, and Latino community leaders in the region this week, described growing fear and rumors of possible raids among Central American communities in the greater Washington area. Many immigrants, they said, are wondering whether it is safe to go to work or send their children to school. Tens of thousands of Central Americans live in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
"It's a panic," said Elias Mejia, owner of La Union International Market in northwest Baltimore. "Business has been going down since Sunday" because people are afraid to go outside, he added.
The advocacy group CASA of Maryland said it was alerted to at least half a dozen detentions this week in Baltimore and Hyattsville, based on information provided by relatives or friends of the detained. However, most of the cases do not fit the profile of recently-arrived parents and children who were being rounded up in other states, said George Escobar, a CASA official.
The group has received hundreds of calls on a 24-hour hotline, held community meetings and posted information on Facebook about how to respond to raids. Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, a CASA community organizer in Baltimore, handed out know-your-rights packets in Spanish Thursday to parents picking up children at an elementary school. The packets advised people not to open the door to immigration agents unless an officer slides a warrant under the door.
Walther-Rodriguez said she interviewed three house cleaners from Silver Spring and Langley Park Wednesday who were cleaning an apartment in Baltimore when ICE agents knocked on the door and demanded they open. They refused and eventually the officers left.
At the rally Friday, officials from Church World Service said they were organizing more than 300 church communities in 30 states to provide safe haven for women and children who might face being rounded up and deported. "This is like the sanctuary movement of the 1980s when people were fleeing civil wars," said Noel Anderson, a community coordinator with the church group. "The situation is similar today."
The Washington Post's David Montgomery and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.