By Jordan Fabian - 12/29/15 06:01 AM EST
The Obama administration’s plan to deport hundreds of families could scramble the politics of immigration heading into the 2016 election.
Democrats are feeling bullish about their prospects with Hispanic voters given the tough rhetoric coming from GOP presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump postpones release of veterans funding details Trump Tower to get heightened security during GOP convention Carson: US present course set for 'carnage and death' MORE and other Republican candidates.
President Obama won nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, and Democrats believe Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCarson: US present course set for 'carnage and death' Dems see political gold in fight over Trump's taxes Trump tears into Kristol on Twitter MORE could improve on that number if Republicans continue their hostile rhetoric over illegal immigration.
As a result, the Department of Homeland Security’s planned campaign to aggressively deport hundreds of immigrant families fleeing violence in Central America is causing concern on the left — for reasons of both politics and policy.
“As of this moment, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans has never been clearer,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant-rights group America's Voice. “That distinction could clearly be blurred if they start raiding young mothers who have fled violence.”
Sharry said it should be “embarrassing” for the administration that Trump is taking credit for the plan, adding, "That should make them think two or three times about following through."
The Washington Post reported last week that federal immigration officials are readying a series of raids that could begin as soon as January, the first major effort to remove Central American families who flocked to the U.S. during last year’s migrant crisis.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not confirm or deny the details of the newspaper’s report.
Activists argue the U.S. should find ways to provide a safe haven for those fleeing violence in Central America, not send them back to their home countries.
Workplace raids were a central fixture of President George W. Bush’s immigration enforcement strategy. But immigrant-rights groups argue that sending agents into homes and communities around the country would provoke backlash against Obama by many in the Hispanic community.
“The idea of raids to send these vulnerable families back to the violence seems unnecessarily harsh,” said Sharry.
The Clinton campaign delivered a more measured response, saying she has “real concerns” about the reports.
"She believes it is critical that everyone has a full and fair hearing, and that our country provides refuge to those that need it,” said campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa.
The issue of migrant families fleeing Central America has posed challenges for Clinton. She supports a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, but in 2014 she said many unaccompanied children from the region “should be sent back” home, a comment that drew criticism from immigrant-rights groups.
Clinton stood by her remarks, arguing it’s crucial for the U.S. government to discourage adults and children from crossing into the country illegally.
But the former secretary of State’s position puts her at risk of being outflanked on her left by her opponents, who have publicly broken with the Obama administration over the plan.
Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Sanders supporter challenges Wyo. delegate allocation Snowden mocks Trump for refusing to debate Sanders MORE (I-Vt.), said last Thursday he was “very disturbed” by the reports. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley last week called for a stop to “mindless deportations,” saying the plan is “completely at odds with our character as a nation.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who represents a south Texas district that sits along the U.S.-Mexico border, disagrees, saying there are upsides to the plan.
“In my district, people say that if they have their day in court, then the law should be followed and ICE should do what they need to do,” said Cuellar, who has endorsed Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“People that live near the border see things differently than the national immigration advocates, and I know that for a fact."
The congressman said the plan “might cause difficulty for people like Hillary Clinton, but I hope at they end of the day they follow what the law is."
The Obama administration reportedly feels it has little choice but to order the deportations.
The strategy is meant to deter another wave of immigrants from crossing the border. The report came as the number of Central American children and families has risen in the past few months, prompting fears that a migration crisis similar to the one last summer could happen again.
In October and November, Border Patrol apprehended 12,505 families along the southwest border, compared with 4,577 families during those same months last year.
Administration officials indicated the plan would fall under enforcement priorities announced last November, which focus on deporting criminals, individuals who pose a national security threat and recently apprehended border crossers. The operation would only target those who received a final order of deportation from an immigration judge, the Post reported.
“Our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values,” said ICE press secretary Gillian Christensen.
Groups that support stricter immigration policies have said a crackdown on Central American migrants is badly needed but remain skeptical the operation will have a deterrent effect.
“I don't think what they've announced, assuming it even happens, will be enough to deter the ongoing surge from Central America,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote in an email.
Krikorian believes the plan is “intended to enable Hillary to say to voters in Ohio and Virginia that the Democrats stand between the extremes of … people like Trump and the kind-hearted but unrealistic open-borders crowd.”
Sylvan Lane contributed.