The Atlantic: The Democrats' Immigration Conundrum

Jan 22, 2016
In The News

Tension between Democratic lawmakers and the White House ran high this month, as members of Congress denounced the administration’s recent immigration raids. The frustration culminated in a series of press conferences and a letter to the president. At the heart of the dispute is a question: Are Central Americans arriving in the U.S. properly treated as illegal immigrants, or refugees?

At the start of January, federal immigration authorities apprehended 121 adults and children who had crossed the U.S. border illegally and had been issued orders of removal by an immigration court. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson released a statement after the raids, saying that they “should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”

But on Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats were quick to voice concerns about how the raids had been conducted. “The manner in which it was rolled out was also a big insult to many of us. We were not instructed and informed about this beforehand,” Representative Ruben Gallego, who is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told me, adding that had members known, they could have taken steps to communicate with their communities.

Representative Norma Torres questioned whether the detainees were given adequate access to legal counsel. “Were they able to have an attorney present? Were they given an opportunity to present their case? And did they understand the process that they were going through?” Administration officials have said that those who were apprehended had been issued final orders by an immigration court and “have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws.”

But beyond the legal merits of the raids, the dispute is centered on how the country should approach undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers are asking the administration to treat them as refugees fleeing dangerous conditions. “This is a misplaced policy that they’re treating Central American like an immigration issue when it’s a true refugee issue,” Gallego said. In a letter to Obama, more than 140 House Democrats called for the suspension of the raids and for the administration to provide migrants with refugee protection.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a refugee resettlement program intended to identify which migrants coming from countries in Central America are eligible for refugee status. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will help set up processing centers in neighboring countries. The program comes as the number of migrants attempting to cross the border is beginning to creep up, eliciting concerns from the administration.

Last month, Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, told members of the House Appropriations Committee that despite an increase in funding, the number of children crossing the border could eventually replicate “the situation we faced” in 2014, according to a letter obtained by the Associated Press. U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show a 187 percent increase in the number of apprehensions on the southwest border between October and December of last year compared to the same time in 2014.

In 2014, President Obama announced executive actions that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. As my colleague Russell Berman noted, there was a detail overlooked at the time: The president’s actions would only apply to undocumented immigrants who had come to the U.S. before the start of 2014. That summer, an estimated 100,000 people crossed the border from Central America. The issue was a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans, as the GOP charged that Obama’s policies were to blame for the surge.   

The administration is now trying to explain to Democratic lawmakers the reasoning behind the raids: They are intended to help avoid another surge of migrants crossing the border illegally. Last week, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston met with lawmakers to relay and clarify that message.

The U.S. is defending its moves on their legal merits, but members of Congress are afraid the administration is selling out its principles on immigration. Each year, the government deports hundreds of thousands of people; the 121 who now face deportation won’t meaningfully increase that total. But the latest back and forth between Democratic lawmakers and the administration is more about principle than policy. Congressional Democrats want the administration to treat most central American immigrants as refugees. The administration’s refusal to embrace that approach has fueled a sense of betrayal among those Democrats who had hoped this administration would prioritize the security of immigrants.