WASHINGTON -- Immigrants and activists marched to the White House on Wednesday to demand that President Barack Obama call off reported plans for deportation raids on Central American families -- and for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to speak out more strongly against them.
"If you deport the refugee community, they are going to be killed," Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, said at a press conference outside the White House. CASA is the immigration advocacy group that organized the protest.
The Washington Post reported last week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was planning raids on families that entered the country illegally during a surge in border crossings last year, most of them from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. According to the report, which ICE officials would not confirm, the raids would target hundreds of parents and children who were ordered for deportation by a judge.
The protesters began at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and then walked to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Next, they went to the White House, where they walked in a large circle for about 20 minutes, drawing the attention of tourists. "Obama, don't deport my mama," they chanted.
Their aim is for the Obama administration to cancel its plans for deportation raids and instead offer Central Americans temporary protected status to remain in the United States given the high level of violence in their home countries.
"These people -- these are children -- that need our help, that need our support, that need our protection from the violence that the region is suffering," Abel Núñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN, said at the press conference. "So this is not about opening the doors for everyone. It's about a conditional and specific region of our hemisphere."
It's a politically complicated situation. The Obama administration has said since the beginning of the surge in crossings by women and children last year that those who don't have valid asylum or relief claims will be deported, and failing to deport those already ordered for removal would only bolster the argument that the president is refusing to enforce the law, particularly at a time when border apprehensions of children and families are once again rising.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement that the agency prioritizes deportation of "individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security."
"As Secretary Johnson has consistently said, our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values," she said in an email.
But the idea of rounding up families in raids prompted outrage from immigrant rights activists. Advocates say that even if the Central Americans were ordered for removal, targeting them for deportation is unjust. Many mothers and children lacked counsel and may have been unaware of their court dates or unable to present their cases, even if they had good ones, they argue.
They said Clinton should speak out against the raids to show she is an ally of the Latino community.
Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, eager to seem as pro-immigrant as possible, quickly criticized the plans. O'Malley sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday "to respectfully request that DHS reconsider this approach."
Clinton's campaign said the front-runner and former secretary of state had "real concerns" about the plan. Clinton spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said on Wednesday that the candidate "believes the United States should give refuge to people fleeing persecution, and should be especially attentive to the needs of children."
"Families who arrive here should be guaranteed due process on their asylum petitions, including a full and fair opportunity to tell their stories," Hinojosa continued in an email. "She believes we should not be conducting large-scale raids and roundups that sow fear and division in our communities. And she believes we should be investing in a longer-term comprehensive solution to the challenge of violence in Central America that causes so many people to make the treacherous journey north."
Republicans, meanwhile, have largely called for more deportations. Business mogul Donald Trump even took credit for the plan for raids, writing on Twitter that they were "because of the pressure put on by me."
Jeny Benavides, an undocumented woman who lives in Stafford, Virginia, told reporters her eldest son, who is in his early twenties, could be at risk for deportation if the raids take place. He came to join her and the rest of their family -- including two U.S. citizen siblings -- from Honduras to escape violence there, including the murder of Benavides' brother. He was unable to get legal help for an asylum application and was ordered for removal.
"My son is traumatized because of that death," Benavides said, as translated by another advocate. "He doesn't want to return. I'm asking Mr. President, please, to stop the deportations."
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