WASHINGTON — Twenty-two Democratic senators asked President Barack Obama on Friday to halt the recent round of federal deportation raids, highlighting anew the schism within the party over the administration's handling of Central American immigrants.
In a letter, the senators wrote that the raids were sweeping up mothers and children who face threats of violence and death when they are returned to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
"We are troubled by the priorities reflected in these enforcement actions," the lawmakers wrote. "It is important to evaluate this as a humanitarian and refugee crisis involving a vulnerable population and not strictly as a border security and immigration enforcement matter."
The senators said the tactic of using highly publicized raids, sometimes in the pre-dawn hours, was "shocking and misguided." They also rejected administration arguments that the operations would deter additional immigrants from fleeing the region to the U.S., saying, "That argument relies on the false premise that most of these people are not fleeing extraordinary danger."
So far, at least 121 people — many from Central America — have been detained in raids that began during the holiday season. Also on the horizon are the first votes in the 2016 presidential caucuses and primaries, a campaign in which GOP contenders Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have staked out tough positions against illegal immigration.
To justify the raids, administration officials have cited an increase in the numbers of families and children arriving at the U.S. border from Central America, spurring memories of the large numbers of people who tried entering the country in the summer of 2014.
"While we recognize the serious underlying conditions that cause some people to flee their home countries, we cannot allow our borders to be open to illegal migration," said White House spokesman Peter Boogaard. "Those who come here illegally will be sent home after being provided an opportunity to have their cases and humanitarian claims heard, consistent with our laws and values."
Boogaard said those taken into custody in recent weeks by immigration enforcement agents have been ordered by courts to be removed from the U.S. and "have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws."
The 22 senators comprise nearly half of all Democrats in the Senate. Among those signing were No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Not signing were Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has expressed hope the raids would be paused, and the lawmaker likely to succeed him as Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York.
In the letter, the senators asked that deportations be slowed so the immigrants could be given legal counsel, even though that is not required. They also asked that immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras be granted a special status that lets people stay in the U.S. temporarily until federal officials declare it is safe for them to return.