Immigration raids, middle-of-the-night roundups, and mass deportations. Although these might bring to mind immigration policy under a possible Trump administration, these are happening now under President Obama. Carrying out a policy announced on Christmas Eve, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun targeting undocumented women and children for removal. 

Immigration authorities say they are carrying out their enforcement priorities of criminals, security threats, and recent arrivals. So why have we not seen such roundups of gang members and potential terrorists — only women and children?

- Raul Reyes

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said that he recognized the “reality of the pain” that deportations cause. “But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities,” he said in a statement. “At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity.”

Johnson’s words amount to little more than empty rhetoric. These raids are a serious misstep from a president who has been called the “Deporter-in-Chief.”  Many of the families the administration has targeted deserve protection, not punishment. The Obama administration is conflating a refugee crisis with illegal immigration – and creating a potential political nightmare for Democrats.

The families that DHS is taking into custody are not the typical undocumented immigrants. Unlike most undocumented immigrants, they are not from Mexico and did not come here to work. Instead, they are from Central America and fled here for their lives. These families come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, three of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2014, the website Vox noted that Honduras was more violent than Iraq at the height of the insurgency, while the Associated Press just found that homicides are up 70 percent in El Salvador. 

Yet the Obama administration is returning these families to their homelands, where they will likely face more violence, even death. The Guardian has already reported on Central American immigrants who were murdered just days after their forced return home. 

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The administration’s actions are especially hypocritical in light of the president’s recent call for the U.S. and the European Union to accept Syrian refugees. “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values,” he tweeted in November. “That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do.”  

Meanwhile, immigration agents are conducting home invasions (at times without the required warrants) and terrifying immigrant communities across the country. 

According to The New York Times, many undocumented immigrants have stayed home from work, kept their children out of school, or stayed in relatives’ homes out of fear. It seems a sad irony that the president is concerned with a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, while preferring to ignore one in our own backyard. 

In his statement, DHS Secretary Johnson noted, “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.” He is right about that. Conservative critics of the administration have already derided this round of removals as window-dressing, while the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has denounced them as inhumane. 

Politically, these raids could serve to potentially neutralize the hard-line positions on immigration from the GOP presidential candidates. No wonder that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley have all expressed concerns about these raids. They understand that it will be harder for them to appeal to Latino voters with Obama administration taking such a harsh stance on immigrants. 

True, immigration authorities say they are carrying out their enforcement priorities of criminals, security threats, and recent arrivals. So why have we not seen such roundups of gang members and potential terrorists — only women and children? 

The government also says that the Central Americans slated for deportation ignored orders of removal. However, many of them did not receive adequate legal representation or due process. The government’s own data on Central American families in detention shows that the overwhelming majority of them have credible fears of persecution at home — meaning they would likely have a case for asylum. 

The fact is that the U.S. has no system in place for the fair and timely processing of these potential asylum seekers. Consider that in 2014, following the summer surge of unaccompanied children at our southern border, the U.S. set up centers in Central American countries so that young people could apply for refugee status from home, without making the dangerous journey north. Thousands of young people applied. But a year later, only 10 had been approved for entry and the number who were actually admitted to the U.S. was… zero.

The Obama administration must recognize that deportations will not make a humanitarian crisis go away. Nor should immigration raids be used against potential refugees. 

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.

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