Leading House Democrats are escalating their criticisms of President Obama's immigration policies, saying the administration's recent arrest of scores of Central American families has "terrorized" immigrant communities nationwide.
The Democrats say they recognize the need for the Homeland Security Department (DHS) to be tough on border enforcement in order to deter the next great migrant wave.
But the agency's recent home raids, which rounded up more than 120 immigrants denied asylum claims and now in line for deportation, backfired and sent shudders of fear through immigrant communities at home instead, the Democrats charged.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) took that criticism a step further, suggesting that a fear campaign was exactly what the DHS had in mind.
"I think that's the idea in many ways: to spread that kind of fear," Schakowsky told reporters in the Capitol. "And the goal may be to send some kind of message back to Central America: 'Don't you dare leave home.' But the consequences of it could be life-lasting for these children and families. … Millions of people are living in fear."
The Democratic critics relayed stories of immigrants in their districts who are effectively homebound as a result of the raids, afraid to send their kids to school or venture out to grocery stores, health clinics and food pantries.
"Rumors are flying. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] … is being seen everywhere," Schakowsky said. "The kind of trauma that these children and adults are experiencing is debilitating, maybe even enough to render them disabled by legal standards."
The Democrats unleashed their charges as they unveiled a letter to Obama urging the president to halt the deportation of Central American asylum seekers — many of them women and children who arrived as part of the 2014 migrant surge — and provide them temporary protective status until the administration adopts a comprehensive, international strategy "to address this regional refugee crisis in an appropriate humanitarian manner."
"It is time to start working towards a solution that provides a practical and humane response to the mothers and children from Central America fleeing for their lives and seeking safety and protection," the lawmakers wrote. "Failure to provide this comprehensive solution will continue to lead to disorder at our border and will further a sense of unease across the United States."
By Tuesday afternoon, 145 House Democrats had already endorsed the letter. It was delivered just a few hours before Obama is to address Congress in his seventh and final State of the Union address on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said any embarrassment Obama faces over the timing of the letter is inconsequential relative to the safety concerns of those facing deportations to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which rank among the most violent countries on earth.
"I didn't come here to really worry too much about people in the executive [branch] or in positions of power and if they feel uncomfortable," Gutiérrez said.
"I've been 99.9 percent with this president," he added. "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."
The criticisms highlight the hot-and-cold relationship between Obama and immigrant rights advocates over the president's record on the issue.
The advocates had howled for years as Obama pushed the number of deportations above levels established by former President George W. Bush, earning him the thankless nickname "deporter in chief." But they also showered Obama with praise when he adopted a series of executive actions, beginning in 2012, that halted deportations for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
"The president deserves tremendous credit for the actions [he's] taken," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Border Security subpanel.
"Here's the problem. .. The DHS meant to give a message to Central America, and ... they gave a message to Americans.
"The administration needs to own that result," she added, "and retool this [policy]."
Gutiérrez also hailed Obama's efforts to rein in deportations in recent years. But he cautioned that the DHS home raids have strained the president's image in the eyes of immigrants, and threaten to tar his legacy on the issue.
"We went from 410,000 deportations a year, to 230 [thousand]. ... That is one of the reasons that this is so perplexing to us," Gutiérrez said.
"Just when there was a sense of trust that we were on the right foot, this leak came out on Christmas Eve. And it's really been destructive to the relationship between the White House and, not just the members of the House ... but the people in general in the communities."
Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (D-Nev.) said Tuesday afternoon that he spoke with Jeh Johnson just hours before, and the DHS secretary "understands the concern."
"I think you're going to find a pause in these deportations," Reid said.
The House Democrats, who have also had a series of recent meetings with top DHS and White House officials, said they have yet to receive the same assurances.
—This story was updated at 6:02 p.m.