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Will Democrats Pay a Price for Obama’s Deportation Raids?

The deportees and their families certainly will.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

One of the most popular themes of 2016 general-election prognosticators is that Donald Trump simply cannot find enough white males to carry him to victory—and that’s the only way he can win. His alienation of Latinos in particular, beginning when he denounced Mexican immigrants as rapists in his campaign announcement speech, has triggered a backlash, with surges of non-white voter registration in states like California. All Democrats need to do in November, the thinking goes, is sit back and collect the votes of people of color against a boor like Trump.

Amid polls showing Trump neck-and-neck with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, this is a reassuring notion for Democrats and #NeverTrump types alike. But it also makes the Obama administration’s latest round of aggressive deportation raids, which will target Central American mothers and children fleeing violence and possible death, all the more puzzling.

The crackdown threatens to squander a historic political advantage in 2016. It could even disrupt a generational political realignment between Democrats and Hispanics. But putting politics aside (for a moment), the White House’s position is wholly indefensible. The political danger is real—but it’s ultimately a sidelight to a senseless human tragedy.

This all sprung from bad publicity after a surge of Central American migrants in 2014. The migrants came mostly from three countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—with staggering levels of violence. Homicide rates in the “Northern Triangle” countries range between seven and 24 times the U.S. average. Women and girls are in particular peril, targeted by gangs and organized crime for extortion fees, recruited into their organizations, or simply singled out for violence.

It’s not hard to find experts who agree that these people have legitimate asylum claims. That would include the U.S. government, at least ostensibly: According to federal statistics compiled by the Center for American Progress, 82 percent of women interviewed by asylum officers had a “credible fear of persecution or torture,” the initial step to receiving clearance to stay. But the Obama administration has endeavored to stop the migrations. More than 10,000 unaccompanied minors have been issued deportation orders in the past two years, to say nothing of adults. More recently, unprecedented home raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began in January, with more planned for this month.

While these are small-scale operations, deporting hundreds rather than thousands, the implications are obvious. “The Obama Administration is trying to send a deterrence message to Central America to deter asylum-seekers from coming,” says Mary Small of the Detention Watch Network, a coalition of groups working on immigration enforcement. “There’s political signaling as well, proving they’re tough on border security.”

People don’t want to wrestle with the implications of this, so let’s lay it out: The U.S. government is sending people back to dangerous countries to face death. The Guardian investigated this and confirmed multiple cases of people gunned down in their hometowns shortly after being deported from the U.S. Local news reports in Northern Triangle countries put the number at 83 murders of deported asylum seekers, and this was in October 2015—before the home raids began.

The Immigration Policy Center interviewed women who were recently deported to the Northern Triangle, and they described living in constant fear. “The first time they called, they told me that if I didn’t join the gang they were going to kill me and take my children,” said Gabriela, a citizen of El Salvador. Andrea, a Guatemalan, said she never leaves her house: “I live practically encaged here.”

The three family detention centers where migrants with children are held, pending deportation, are simply inhumane. The two biggest, located near the border in Texas, are owned and operated by America’s two major private prison companies: Corrections Corporation of America runs the South Texas Residential Family Center in Dilley, and Geo Group manages a separate facility in nearby Karnes. Last July, the Dilley family detention center gave a hepatitis A vaccine in adult doses to children, sending them all to the hospital.

Activists fighting family detention liken the centers to Japanese internment camps, and claim the detentions have stunted cognitive development and increased trauma among children. In a controversial move, Texas designated these sites as child care centers in order to comply with a federal lawsuit called Flores, which requires immigrant children to be held in non-secure, licensed facilities. Considering that children cannot leave them, it’s impossible to see how the Texas detention centers could qualify as “non-secure.” Activists sued to reverse the designation, and Texas District Judge Karin Crump issued a temporary restraining order against it. The judge will decide the case this week.

The Obama administration pressured Texas to license these facilities to reach legal compliance—a rare instance of the White House and perhaps the most anti-Obama state in the nation working together. “They’re completely on the same side,” Mary Small says. In the past two years, she adds, ICE has stopped releasing asylum seekers if they passed the initial “credible fear” screening, leaving them to fight their cases from detention centers—which is exceedingly difficult because of the detainees’ limited access to legal counsel. “We’ve paid a lot of attention about how this is affecting kids, but we missed it on adults,” Small says.

In other words, there are lots of things the Obama administration is doing to make life miserable for survivors of extreme violence, going way beyond merely enforcing the law. And that brings us back to politics, because it cannot help but have an indelible impact on how those communities feel about Democrats over the long term.

The whole idea of an “emerging Democratic majority” was always predicated on Democratic dominance among people of color. But what if draconian Obama-era immigration policies cause Latinos, the fastest-growing part of the electorate, to tune out the Democrats as well as the Republicans?

This prospect explains why Hillary Clinton jumped to denounce “raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities” as soon as the new actions were announced. If she wants to attract enough Latino votes in November to cancel out Trump’s advantages with whites—which she does—she’ll need to do far more to distance herself from these policies.

But considering Clinton spent the entire primary positioning herself as the natural heir to the Obama coalition, separating herself could prove difficult. At the most basic level, the raids will hinder her campaign’s efforts to contact Latino voters, as even naturalized immigrants in mixed-status families don’t want to give out their information. A fresh round of headlines about families ripped apart and even killed could dampen Latino voter enthusiasm even more.

Latinos certainly don’t consider Trump a better option. But the horror stories might discourage many in the Latino community from believing that there’s any hope of receiving respect and dignity from either party. They may tune out of politics, considering both sides equally belligerent. And that matters way beyond one election.

All of which begs the question of why the White House is embarking on this—and why now? After all, Obama rolled out in late 2014 a series of policies aimed at deporting “felons, not families,” touting the fact that they would protect millions of law-abiding immigrants. Those policies have been held up in lawsuits that have reached the Supreme Court; a decision is expected this month. There’s a theory that the administration can only win in court by proving that it is using its prosecutorial authority in other cases—so it shows a strong hand with some immigrants to allow for a lighter touch with others. In addition, the migrant crisis hurt the administration’s popularity in 2014, and there might be a political calculation here—an idea that parrying Republican critiques on immigration will somehow help Democrats, especially Clinton, with swing voters.

But if that’s the political rationale, it’s far-fetched to say the least. Meanwhile, the women and children being deported are pretty clearly refugees, and returning them to horrific violence could permanently scar Democratic support from Latinos. The reticence over accepting migrants further shows America’s cruel streak to the world, too, but that’s also of far less importance than the lives that will be wrecked or lost. It may have made internal sense for Obama and the Democrats to be “tough on the border” when trying to negotiate comprehensive immigration reform; it makes no sense now. Donald Trump may have called Mexicans names, but he didn’t do this.