WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal immigration raids have wrenched open new divides between President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies, including the woman who hopes to replace him, Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, with the president due to arrive on Capitol Hill within hours to deliver his final State of the Union Address, House Democrats gathered at a press conference to denounce his policies and release a letter signed by nearly 150 lawmakers calling for deportation raids to stop.
"It's just unacceptable," said Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. "I've been 99.9 percent with this president of the United States but in this particular case, when his administration sows the seeds of terror throughout the immigrant community of the United States and millions of people are affected, that's what I'm going to concern myself with."
That came after Clinton broke with Obama on the issue at a forum in Iowa Monday night, also calling for the raids to end. "I do not think the raids are an appropriate tool to enforce the immigration laws. In fact, I think they are divisive, they are sowing discord and fear," she said. Fellow Democratic hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland have adopted similar stances.
The Obama administration has defended the holiday-season raids that resulted in detentions of 121 people, many from Central America. They point to a spike in families and children arriving at the U.S. southern border from Central America, which has prompted fears of another border crisis like the one that dominated national news during the summer of 2014.
This time it would come amid a presidential race where immigration is already a fraught topic, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump insisting he would deport everyone here illegally while Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida exchange barbs about who has the stronger record on this issue. Trump has praised the raids and taken credit for them.
"Our desire to make clear that individuals should not embark on the dangerous journey from Central America to the Southwest border — that's a case that we've tried to tell in a variety of ways," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
"It was only after individuals had exhausted the legal remedies available to them ... was a decision made to remove them," he said.
The administration has shown no sign of backing off its approach, though Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., created confusion on that question Tuesday when he told reporters he'd spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and "I think you're going to find a pause in these deportations." Aides later insisted Reid simply meant to suggest that he hoped there would be a pause.
Earlier, the administration sent White House Counsel Neil Eggleston to meet privately with House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But despite what all involved described publicly as a cordial meeting, neither side seemed ready to budge. Democratic aides said Eggleston expressed concerns about the Democrats' approach and the potential impact it could have on the administration's hopes of defending Obama's deportation-relief policies before the Supreme Court.
Administration officials have repeatedly emphasized that they have focused on people who have arrived in this country recently, in line with new deportation priorities announced in late 2014, at the same time Obama announced an expanded deportation relief program, promising to temporarily lift the threat of removal for millions.
The goodwill from those deferment programs was fleeting, in part because they're tied up in court. The White House now finds itself making some of the same arguments it made earlier in Obama's administration, when activists labeled him "deporter in chief" for presiding over record deportations while failing to persuade Republicans to support immigration reform legislation. Officials say the administration has a responsibility to enforce the law and in this case there is a further responsibility not to encourage people to take a very dangerous journey.
New figures Tuesday showed that arrivals of families and unaccompanied children from Central America from October to December shot up to well over double the amount from the same period the previous year. The numbers could go even higher beginning in February and early spring, when arrivals traditionally increase, potentially eclipsing the levels that produced the 2014 crisis.
Many are fleeing brutal gang warfare in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the same countries whose violence and instability forced women and kids to make the dangerous trip north two years ago, overwhelming U.S. facilities and producing disturbing images of frightened children huddling in Border Patrol facilities. Such images remain vivid to policymakers, and avoiding a repeat is a priority.
Administration officials say they are better prepared than they were in 2014 for a new influx, including increased capacity to house children. But the administration has limited strategies to stem the tide. They have stepped up advertising in Central American countries to warn of the dangers of the trip and point to $750 million in a year-end spending bill to help those nations.