Immigration raids sparking outcry on both sides of issue

RIVERSIDE, CA - AUGUST 12: ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations unit raid to apprehend immigrants without any legal status and who may be deportable. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

RIVERSIDE, CA - AUGUST 12: ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations unit raid to apprehend immigrants without any legal status and who may be deportable. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)  (2015 Los Angeles Times)

The Obama administration’s new raids on Central American immigrants who have deportation orders are coming under fire from all sides of the debate over how to handle those who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, many of them requesting political asylum.

The raids began over the weekend in states such as Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, and mark the beginning of what is expected to be a national crackdown on Central Americans who came by the tens of thousands, often in family units.

On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the raids, which led to the arrests of 121 people, saying they are necessary to deter even more migrants from illegally crossing the border.

Groups that advocate for more lenient immigrant policies criticized the raids as insensitive and overzealous.

They rekindled their labeling of President Barack Obama as “Deporter-in-Chief,” a title they gave him after more than 2 million immigrants – a record for any president – were deported since he took office in 2008.

Kica Matos, spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), said to Fox News Latino: “FIRM demands that President Obama, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Director Sarah Saldana immediately put an end to their plan to continue to raid people’s homes, terrorize families and rip them apart.”

“If these families are deported -- and most of them would be women and children, they would be returned to places they fled to escape being killed, raped or tortured.”

Many of the some 100,000 immigrants who came in 2014, and who included thousands of unaccompanied minors, told of fleeing because of rampant gang violence and poverty in Central America. Many youths said they had fled after being pressured to, as they put it, “join or die” gangs. Most of the families have fled from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

On Monday, Salvadoran officials said that killings in the gang-plagued nation spiked by nearly 70 percent last year, resulting in a homicide rate that could make it the world's most violent country.

National Police director Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde said El Salvador officially registered at least 6,657 homicides in 2015, up from 3,942 the previous year.

The overall yearly homicide rate was the country's highest ever at 104 per 100,000 inhabitants, putting it in a position to take over the dubious title of the world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras.

While gangs and violence were arguably factors pushing many people to flee to the United States, there were also immigrants from Central America who told interviewers from various non-profit organizations assisting them that they believed that anyone who managed to get into the United States would be allowed to stay.

The DHS statement on the raids acknowledged that they were being criticized from different sides of the immigration issue.

"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," Johnson said. "I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities."

He said his agency was simply making sure people follow federal laws.

"As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," he said. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."

Proponents of strict immigration enforcement balked at the DHS statement and the raids, calling them too little too late.

“This appears to be another effort on the part of the administration to convince the American public that they are making a serious effort at enforcement when, in fact, they are doing very little,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. “The removal of a few hundred illegal aliens who have exhausted all legal remedies to remain in the U.S. will do little to stem to surge of migrants from Central America, when you consider the enormous numbers who have arrived in the past few years.”

In recent months, after ebbing for a while, large groups of immigrants from Central America – many of them unaccompanied youths – began appearing at the border again.

They have approached Border Patrol agents about getting refuge in the United States.

"It should not be forgotten that the majority of these illegal aliens were not 'apprehended' - they happily sought out Border Patrol Agents with the valid expectation of permanent residence," said D.A.King, a Georgia-based activist who fights for tougher immigration enforcement. "Neither should it be forgotten that Mexico can stop the illegal migration through its country to the USA anytime they want."

Advocates for immigrants vow to keep an eye on the raids and to maintain pressure on the Obama administration to respond to border issues in what they say would be a more humane, productive way.

Layla Razavi, the Human Migration and Mobility Director of American Friends Service Committee, said the raids are not addressing the real issue.

“The Secretary’s statement is indicative of where the administration is on the issue of families seeking asylum,” Razavi said. “His statement outlines plans for raiding families in their homes and touts the increase in militarization of the border, but refugee processing and addressing the root causes of the violence in Central America are merely an afterthought.”

In a news conference Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that "politics did not factor" into the decision by Homeland Security officials to conduct raids, despite increased debate about immigration enforcement and policy by Republicans on the presidential campaign trail.

Guatemala's Foreign Ministry said via Twitter that it was monitoring the situation, and promised to offer consular assistance and protection to its citizens living overseas.

It advised Guatemalans in the U.S. that they need not open their doors to immigration agents unless the officers have a warrant signed by a judge. It also recommended that they carry with them at all times phone numbers of family members, a lawyer and the nearest consulate.

"You have rights that must be respected. ... Immigration agents have the obligation to respect your basic rights, as well as treat you and your family members in a dignified manner, especially when it comes to children," the Foreign Ministry said.

The government of El Salvador issued similar advice to any of its citizens facing enforcement action in the U.S.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.