By Mike Lillis - 01/08/16 06:09 PM EST
A growing chorus of Democrats in both chambers of Congress is urging President Obama to put an immediate halt to the deportation of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States.
The lawmakers are furious that the administration has arrested scores of asylum seekers — many of them women and children who entered the country in 2014 as part of a surge at the Texas-Mexico border — and plans to send them home.
“This is not an immigration issue, it is a refugee issue,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), told reporters Friday in the Capitol.
“Deporting these refugees essentially means that we're sending them back to their home countries to face possible death.”
The Democrats want Obama to extend temporary protective status to those seeking asylum from three beleaguered Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — until better legal protections are installed.
“Although they may have hearings, and may have an opportunity to speak before a judge, without knowing the language, or without meaningful representation, that's basically useless,” Sánchez said. “In the absence of fixing that system, grant them temporary protective status until they secure that due process.”
Sánchez is hardly alone.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, warned of “the extraordinarily adverse consequences” the arrests have had on immigrant communities nationwide.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), head of the Asian Pacific-American Caucus, said it's “appalling” to force the families “to navigate a broken and complex immigration system without the right to meaningful legal representation.”
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said the administration “needs to explain” why it wants to expand its refugee program for Syrians but “apprehend those fleeing violence in Central America.”
And Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), floated the notion that the entire sting operation was designed simply to counter conservative charges that the administration is lax on immigration enforcement.
“I hope that the administration is not considering these women and children as collateral damage in a broader political discussion about immigration and an election year discussion about immigration,” Grijalva said. “This is very real to these families, [and] this is very real to us.”
The leaders of the CPC sent Obama a letter Friday urging him to stop the arrests “immediately” until the administration can “ensure these women and children have an opportunity to present their asylum claims in court, with full access to counsel and due process protections prior to deportation.”
Across the Capitol, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential hopeful, sent a similar letter to the president Thursday. And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he told officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “back off” the deportations until the system can be examined.
The uproar revolves around last weekend's arrest of 121 immigrants who entered the country illegally after May 1, 2014, and are now in line for deportation. In announcing the operation Monday, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said their removals “should come as no surprise” because they follow guidelines established in November of 2014, which prioritized criminals and new arrivals for deportation.
“I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed,” Johnson said in a statement.
But the timing of arrests — the news broke just before Christmas — and the targets have left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Democrats, who are asking for a meeting with the president.
More than a dozen House Democrats met Thursday with DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz in the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has joined the critics' calls for more protections for the immigrants.
The administration officials declined to comment following the meeting, and the DHS did not reply to requests for comment for this story.
The Democratic critics also feel slighted that the administration cut them out of the process. Obama, for years, has been dogged by accusations that he's kept even his staunchest Capitol Hill allies in the dark when it comes to policy decisions. Seven years into tenure, those charges are still coming.
“There is a great degree of anger and disappointment at the fact that this administration does not communicate — with its friends, with its allies,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said Thursday.
“In the Hispanic Caucus, there's a real sense of outrage and a lack of respect.”