By REBECCA RAINEY and DEEPA RAMUDAMU
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON — Maryland Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, both Democratic front runners in the U.S. Senate race, have objected to the recent immigration raids targeting migrants in cities across the United States, saying the operations are creating “widespread fear and panic in immigrant communities.”
In a letter to President Barack Obama last month, the lawmakers urged that the Department of Homeland Security’s stepped-up enforcement actions “be immediately suspended.” Other lawmakers, local officials and civil rights groups have expressed similar concerns, and some churches have offered to help those under deportation orders.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders criticized the immigration actions in their Wisconsin debate Thursday night.
The administration, however, has defended the operations.
“At this point, our policy will remain the same,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a briefing last month. “We’ve also prioritized for removal those individuals who have only recently crossed the border. And the idea here is that we should prioritize felons — the deportation of felons over the separation of families.”
Despite fewer numbers of South American migrants, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement earlier this month that his agency would continue immigration enforcement actions.
Federal immigration authorities apprehended 23,767 migrants in January, which is 13,000 fewer than in December. The apprehensions included both unaccompanied children and those in families, according to homeland security officials.
Johnson insisted his agency’s operations were limited in scope.
“The new enforcement policy announced by the president and me on November 20, 2014 makes clear that our limited resources for immigration enforcement will not be dedicated to the removal of those who have committed no serious crimes, have been in this country for years, and have families here,” the secretary said.
While Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan decided that the state would cooperate with the federal government on undocumented detainees, other Maryland officials have spoken out against helping.
“I have deep concerns about the Department of Homeland Security’s recent enforcement operation targeting refugee mothers and children from Central America,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Resources should be used to address those who pose a threat to our communities, not those seeking refuge.”
Migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been fleeing rising gang violence in those countries.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and the County Council released a joint statement Jan. 11 saying that county police would not cooperate with immigration enforcement operations.
“To the members of our Montgomery County community who are justifiably concerned about the federal government’s most recent deportation actions, we encourage you to go about your daily activities free of fear,” according to the statement.
Despite this reassurance, the Latin American community still fears deportation.
“They feel happy and proud of the statement,” said Nestor Alvarenga, the Latin American community liaison for the county. “I am not sure how much it decreased the level of fear but the statement did help to motivate people to continue with their daily activities.”
Over New Year’s weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducted widespread operations to arrest Central American adults and children “who were apprehended after May 1, 2014, crossing the southern border illegally,” according to an agency statement.
Those taken into custody had been issued removal orders by an immigration court and do not have an “outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws,” the statement continued.
Although the immigration actions are intended to target more recent immigrants, Alvarenga said that both new immigrants and those who have lived in Montgomery County for years are concerned about the immigration agency.
“The level of fear of a deportation is the same,” Alvarenga said.
“The Department of Homeland Security’s renewed effort to deport families and children is the wrong approach that’s causing unthinkable heartache for hard working immigrant families who fear being separated,” Van Hollen said, who represents Montgomery County.
Van Hollen and Edwards have both openly fought against new stricter immigration policies, including opposing Hogan’s requests to not allow Syrian refugees to resettle in the state.
“Governor Hogan’s refusal to resettle Syrian refugees fleeing from violence is against the values we hold dear as Marylanders and as Americans,” Edwards said last year.
Last November, Hogan posted on his Facebook page that resettlement of Syrians should halt “until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety.”