Concerns linger after Democrats meet with DHS chief on deportations

Greg Nash

House Democratic immigration reformers are vowing to continue pressing the Obama administration on deportations after a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson that apparently failed to placate their concerns. 

Johnson has been under fire from the Democrats since early last month, when DHS arrested more than 120 undocumented Central Americans with plans to send them home.

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The DHS chief met last week on the topic with several Democrats, including Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who have led the chorus of lawmakers condemning the process with charges that immigrants seeking asylum are being denied sound legal protection.  

While all sides are being tight-lipped about the closed-door discussion, the Democrats suggested that differences remain.

"The vast majority of Democrats made clear to the president … [the] concerns we had," Lofgren said after the meeting, referring to a recent letter House Democrats sent to Obama urging a halt to the deportations. "And I think some of those issues are going to be addressed, … and some, we're going to require additional discussion." 

Lofgren said the arrests have created a culture of fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities nationwide — a message the Democrats delivered to Johnson. 

"It's not as apparent to every American, but it's 24/7 in the Spanish language press, and we need to own that issue because it was not intended," she said. "And so there's a need to make clear what the policy is, and what the policy isn't."

Gutiérrez was also very guarded about the meeting, expressing concerns that spilling details in the press would create "an environment [not] conducive to resolving the problem."

But he, too, suggested the administration did not satisfy the Democrats' concerns, saying there's "something fundamentally wrong" with a process that denies sound counsel for asylum seekers.

"I get the fact that if you lose, you gotta go. I get that," Gutiérrez said. "[But] it is my position that there are still people who went through the asylum process, and it was a process that wasn't fair, because it's complicated, and you need good counsel, a good lawyer. 

"I'm going to continue to advocate for legal counsel," he added. "Everybody says, 'Aw, but they got to go through the process.' Let me tell you, the ones that the advocacy community was able to provide with legal counsel, they were pretty resoundingly successful."  

The criticism comes after DHS last month rounded up 121 illegal immigrants deemed ineligible for asylum status, many of them families who arrived from Central America as part of the 2014 migrant surge at the southern border.

The Democrats have warned that sending the families back to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — which rank among the most violent and unstable countries in the world — would threaten their lives.

The administration has defended the operation, saying it follows DHS's 2014 guidelines for prioritizing criminals and new arrivals for deportation. And last week, on the same day he met with the Democrats, Johnson issued a statement vowing to adhere to that strategy. 

"I have spoken or met with a number of members of Congress, advocates and attorneys concerned about the enforcement actions that took place on January 2-3. I have great respect for the views expressed and those who expressed them. But, as I have explained in these discussions, immigration enforcement policy must be two sides of a coin," Johnson said.  

On one hand, the administration will not target "those who have committed no serious crimes, have been in this country for years, and have families here," Johnson said. 

"On the other hand, our new policy is focused on public safety and border security, as it should be. Those who commit serious crimes or who are apprehended at the border are priorities for removal. These have been our priorities consistently since we announced them on November 20, 2014, and they have not changed."

DHS declined to comment beyond Johnson's statement. But The New York Times, citing unnamed officials, said Johnson's message to the Democrats was that the deportations would continue as planned.

That message won't sit well with the lawmakers, who are vowing to press their case.

"Everyone who faces the penalty of death should be afforded counsel," Gutiérrez said. "We fight for terrorists to have lawyers. These are people fleeing. So that's my point."