By Mike Lillis - 01/06/16 02:21 PM EST
Democrats in both chambers are sharpening their criticisms of the Obama administration's deportation policies following the recent arrest of scores of immigrants in the country illegally who are now in line to be sent home.
The lawmakers are accusing the administration of ripping apart families, traumatizing children and risking the safety of the deportees as they face a return to beleaguered parts of the world.
Across the Capitol, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) warned of “the chilling effect” the arrests will have on “immigrant communities who will understandably be terrified and deterred from approaching law enforcement to report crimes.”
And Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), said that “raiding people's homes to forcibly break families apart” simply defies America's role as a refuge for the dispossessed.
“Invading homes is inhumane and adds to the trauma of these families fleeing violence and oppression,” she said. “These minors could be our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews.”
The criticisms are not limited to Hispanic lawmakers.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Wednesday that “there's real concern” among a swath of Democrats about “splitting up families.”
Thompson, a member of the Black Caucus, said the grievances grew pronounced during a meeting of ranking members Wednesday morning, and that a number of Democrats — including those representing border districts — are hoping to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in search of a tamer policy.
“I assume some of us will be talking very shortly with him to see if there's a middle ground,” Thompson told The Hill. “There is concern. It is an issue.
“I think they want to know: is this the beginning or is this it?” he added.
The outcry follows Johnson's announcement Monday that the agency is accelerating its deportation of immigrant families who have entered the country illegally over the last two years.
As a first wave of that effort, the agency arrested 121 undocumented immigrants last weekend after their petitions for asylum or other forms of relief were denied, Johnson said. Members of the group, which includes women and children who arrived as part of the migrant surge of 2014, are being housed in detention centers awaiting deportation, primarily to Central America.
The administration has defended the operation, saying it's simply following guidelines the Department of Homeland Security adopted in November of 2014, which established a pecking order of deportation cases that prioritizes those entering the country illegally after Jan. 1 of that year.
“I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed,” Johnson said in Monday's statement.
A number of Democrats say administration officials are in a pickle, caught between bad immigration laws they must enforce and GOP leaders in Congress who won't consider reforms.
“We're going to continue to see a lot of heartache unless we fix this broken immigration system,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol.
Still, Becerra said he also harbors concerns about the legal process that ultimately decides who stays and who goes.
“Many of these individuals, especially if they're children, probably have little understanding of what the process is,” he said. “Did they get a fair hearing? Did they have an opportunity to have an advocate help them in preparation of their case?
“It's not easy to demonstrate that you are fleeing death or persecution — real persecution — that could leave you in grave concern for your life,” he added. “That would be my concern.”
The administration's critics won a temporary victory on Tuesday, when the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals halted the deportations for a dozen people being held in Texas following last weekend's arrests.
Katie Shepherd, attorney for the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which is working on behalf of the migrants, said the families had been denied fair legal protections.
“Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims,” Shepherd said Wednesday in a statement, “but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court.”
The 12 detainees, representing four different families, were scheduled to be deported on Wednesday morning.