President Barack Obama's "holiday raids" targeting refugees from predominantly Central American countries have provoked outrage—and terror—among asylum-seekers and their loved ones, as well as condemnation from a handful of Democratic lawmakers.
Critics note that the harsh actions of the president, referred to by many as the "Deporter-In-Chief," come amidst hate speech prevalent in the 2016 election cycle.
"For seven years, the Obama Administration has never missed an opportunity to move its immigration policy to the right to win a few political points," Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement released this week. "Now, as Trump's racist discourse becomes normalized in U.S. politics, the Obama administration chooses to double down on its shameful deportation policy."
"The sad truth is that President Obama's actions are more vile than Trump's words," Alvarado added. "Trump stigmatizes people with his dehumanizing language; President Obama deports them."
Announced just before Christmas, the mass deportations could impact up to 15,000 people. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), at least 121 families and children who lost their asylum cases were detained over the weekend, mainly in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. Alejandro Caceres, family detention organizer at Grassroots Leadership, told Common Dreams that sweeps have also been reported in Baltimore and New York.
Meanwhile, reports are emerging that those captured are being denied the most basic due process.
The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project reported on Wednesday that it has "succeeded in halting the deportation of four Central American families apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over the weekend."
"The raids by the Obama Administration on families from Central America must stop. They are a cruel reminder of a discredited policy."
—Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)
"Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims, but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court," said Katie Shepherd, managing attorney for the Project. "It's beyond shameful that these families, who risked everything to seek protection in the United States, were being forcibly returned to the violence and turmoil they fled in Central America."
Some lawmakers this week vocalized their opposition to the aggressive sweeps.
"The raids by the Obama Administration on families from Central America must stop," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in a statement released on Monday. "They are a cruel reminder of a discredited policy."
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"Along with other Members of Congress," Gutierrez continued, "I am seeking answers from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as to why this policy is needed, why it was launched to instill fear in immigrant households over the Christmas, New Year’s and Three Kings holidays, and why family detention centers I have been trying to close are now filling up with new families awaiting deportation."
U.S. family detention camps have been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a U.S. government-ordered probe, and World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp survivor Satsuki Ina, who asked in May: "Have we not learned from the past?" In fact, repeated hunger strikes over cruel conditions of confinement have swept some of these facilities, including Karnes Detention Camp—which is run by the for-profit prison company GEO Group.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told Politico this week that the administration's "harsh" policies target those "whose only mistake was to escape a certain death in their native countries."
Some legislators, however, appear to be confused about who exactly is being deported.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that "no one’s talking about deporting children."
Yet this assertion contradicts statements this week by Johnson, who declared: "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
What's more, Reid's claim contradicts reports that children as young as four years old are being captured in sweeps and sent into deportation proceedings.
Social justice groups have been vocal in their opposition to the raids, with over 150 human rights groups releasing a joint letter on the last day of 2015 denouncing the plan. Now that the sweeps have begun, groups such as United We Dream are circulating information on "What to do if ICE comes to your door."
Those impacted say the raids have created a climate of fear and terror among immigrant and refugee communities, many of whom are fleeing drug wars, poverty, and violence worsened by U.S. policies. Most of those being detained hail from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and according to Caceres, a majority of families are being moved to a detention camp in Dilley, Texas with notoriously poor conditions.
"The President and his enablers should cease these raids immediately and focus resources and attention on the preservation of immigrant and refugee rights," Alvarado urged. "Basic decency requires no less."