House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized President Barack Obama's recent deportation raids, telling reporters on Thursday that some of the women and children the administration wants to send back to Central America could face "mortal danger" there.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration began to conduct raids to find mothers and children who entered the U.S. after May 1, 2014 and who had received deportation orders from a judge. The agency picked up 121 people, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Monday, all of whom fit within the administration's priorities for deportation.
But advocates say that deporting the women and children is fundamentally unjust -- and potentially dangerous. Most of the families would be returning to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. El Salvador surpassed Honduras last year and is on track to become the world's "murder capital," with a 70 percent jump in homicides from the year before.
“This is a very serious challenge,” Pelosi said on Thursday when asked if people rounded up in the raids should be deported. “In the processing of asylum claims of these women and children and others fleeing really horrific violence in Central America, the Department of Homeland Security must ensure that no person is wrongfully deported to face certain persecution or mortal danger -- and that's what's happening there.”
While the department says these immigrants have used up all their other legal options, Pelosi argued that officials involved in the adjudication process must realize that not everyone has access to effective counsel.
Families and children picked up during the raids, Pelosi said, should have full access to attorneys, clear explanations of what is happening to them in their native language, and understand their right to appeal.
“We have to study every case separately. We want to obey our laws, but we also want to, in obeying our laws, make sure that the process is fair to people,” she said.
Immigration advocates argue that many of the women and children have legitimate cases for asylum or other kinds of relief that would enable them to stay in the U.S., usually because they face the threat of domestic abuse or gang violence. Late Tuesday, an immigration court granted four families a stay of removal as they appeal the rulings. Attorneys say this demonstrates that many of the women and children being deported to Central America should get another chance to fight their removal.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency "did not target individuals with pending appeals before the Board of Immigration Appeals, or individuals for whom the time period to file such an appeal had not expired."
"While ICE will respect any lawfully issued stays of removal, we also reserve the right to pursue any legal avenues available to us to further litigate these matters," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement on Wednesday. "As noted by Secretary Johnson, we must enforce the law in accordance with our stated priorities, and secure our borders."
Pelosi and other lawmakers plan to speak with the administration about implementing U.S. law “fairly,” while also signaling that entering the country without authorization doesn’t automatically mean one can stay.
Still, Pelosi characterized the situation many are fleeing in Central America as “horrific.”
“Mortal danger is not an exaggeration of what some of these people will experience when they go home,” she said.
A number of Democrats also criticized the raids, including Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Linda Sánchez of California and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is running for president, wrote to Johnson last week asking him to reconsider the plans, and on Wednesday called for the administration to offer temporary protective status to people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Hillary Clinton spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said last week that the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate "believes the United States should give refuge to people fleeing persecution, and should be especially attentive to the needs of children."
On Thursday, presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent a letter to the president and homeland security officials that suggested offering temporary protective status to the immigrants.
"Raids are not the answer," Sanders wrote, according to The Washington Post. "We cannot continue to employ inhumane tactics involving rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of immigrant families to address a crisis that requires compassion and humane solutions."
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