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The nationwide immigration raids targeting Central American families, explained

Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty

The Obama administration has quieted down its immigration enforcement over the past couple of years. But the administration is starting 2016 with a bang: with a nationwide wave of immigration raids.

In late December, the Washington Post broke the news that the administration was finalizing a plan to find and deport Central American families who came to the US in the past couple of years but have been ordered to leave by a judge. The government didn't waste much time. Raids started in the Atlanta area on the morning of Saturday, January 2. At least 11 families were detained, according to the Los Angeles Times. And the raids are expected to continue.

The administration's motivations are complicated. The plan is in part a response to a new surge of children and families into the US from Central America, after a year-long lull. But it's also a continuation of the 2014 border crisis, which created deep political frustrations with the Obama administration on the left and right that still haven't been resolved. Even before the plan was leaked to the public, it was extremely controversial within the Obama administration (which is typically unified on immigration policy), and may be a last-ditch bid to keep the Supreme Court on its side. It's getting tremendous heat from immigrant rights activists. And it's almost certainly going to become a problem for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

What the Obama administration is actually doing, in fewer than 200 words

Since the beginning of 2014, about 100,000 families (mostly mothers with children) have arrived in the US from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most of them have tried to get asylum in the US — these are among the most violent countries in the world, and many of them are being targeted by gangs.

While some of these families have been granted asylum, many have not — either because they've made their case in immigration court and lost or because they simply didn't show up for their scheduled hearing before a judge. Some families (as many as 15,000) have stayed in the country after being ordered to leave.

The Obama administration has launched a big effort to deport those families to begin 2016. And it's raiding residential neighborhoods to find and arrest the families — a tactic that a lot of immigrants and immigration advocates have traumatic associations with.

The raids are partly a reaction to a new spike of Central American children and families in the US

The "border crisis" basically ended in late summer and early fall of 2014, when the number of children and families entering the US dropped precipitously — thanks largely to the efforts of the Mexican government, which (with significant US assistance) caught many Central American children and families before they could get to the US. Public attention moved on, and the issue kind of drifted to the sidelines.

But as 2015 drew to a close, there was another spike. In some ways, this spike is even more alarming than the 2014 one — that "crisis" happened during a time of year that's typically a high season for migration to the US from Latin America, while this is happening in the middle of winter, typically a slow time for migrations everywhere. The Obama administration's reaction to the new wave of Central American families appears to be to step up deportations of the last wave.

There is a policy rationale for this: Government officials consistently said last year that the best way to deter children and families from making the dangerous trip from Central America to the US was to demonstrate that people who made the trip wouldn't be allowed to stay in the US. But this rationale only makes sense if people shouldn't leave their home countries and try to come to the US — in other words, if they're not really legitimate asylum seekers in fear for their lives, but people trying to take advantage of the US immigration system to come here.

Is that true of the people trying to come to the US now? Border Patrol agents think so: They're circulating reports that most of the newcomers from Central America say they're coming to the US because they think they can get legal status here, not because they're afraid for their lives. But there's a reason Border Patrol agents aren't in charge of evaluating asylum claims; they can be too dismissive of legitimate danger. And there is evidence that the "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are legitimately dangerous — even more so than they've been in the past.

The families who have been caught in raids and could be deported have had a chance to receive asylum from an immigration judge, and have been ordered to leave the US instead. That means they don't automatically get another hearing before a judge before being deported. But there's an irony in the fact that they could be deported because of a new wave of entries into the US. If the new wave of entries is because Central America is getting more dangerous, the families denied asylum will be deported to countries where their lives could be more threatened than when they left.

This is particularly upsetting to immigration advocates, many of whom feel that many of these families shouldn't have been denied asylum to begin with — and that the administration has mistreated them from the very beginning.

The plan is renewing buried feelings from the 2014 "border crisis" — which sowed distrust of the Obama administration on both the right and left

While the border crisis had national attention, the Obama administration struggled mightily to find a policy response that would please its critics on the right and left. Unsurprisingly, it didn't succeed.

Republican critics maintained that Obama's 2012 executive action granting protection from deportation to immigrants already in the US who'd arrived as children was acting as a magnet to draw more children and families to come. But when the administration responded to the crisis in summer of 2014 by detaining thousands of immigrant families and helping the Mexican government apprehend children and families before they arrived in the US, conservatives didn't exactly give the White House credit for the crackdown.

Immigration advocates, on the other hand, were enraged by the administration's response — they felt the administration was treating asylum seekers who hadn't actually broken any laws as if they were criminals. Advocates dragged the government into a messy legal battle over detention of immigrant families; the courts have sided with advocates time after time, and ordered the government to release the families who are still being detained as quickly as possible. According to the Washington Post, the government's inability to keep families locked up in detention while their immigration cases are heard is one reason they're planning to start using raids to find and deport families instead.

But the new deportation plan is enraging immigration advocates anew. In other words, the Obama administration is in the exact same political bind it was in in 2014: Inaction risked criticism from the right over "border security"; action creates criticism from the left.

The raids are totally consistent with the Obama administration's deportation policy

The complaints of advocates might make it seem like the Obama administration is making some sort of huge change from its current immigration policy in order to crack down on this particular group of people. That's not exactly true. In terms of who the Obama administration chooses to deport, going after Central American families who've lost their asylum cases is totally in line with existing policy. But in terms of how they're being deported, the new plan does represent a big change.

Under the policy guidelines the Obama administration has used for the president's second term — and certainly for the past year — most unauthorized immigrants aren't targets for deportation. But immigrants who have been ordered deported from the US since January 2014, and are still here, are a priority for removal.

According to the Post, the Obama administration is only planning to deport Central American families who have been ordered to leave the US — in other words, families who would be a priority for deportation anyway. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, about 15,500 mothers with children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been ordered deported since July 2014 (when the Obama administration started speeding up court hearings for new arrivals). Some of those have probably already been deported or left on their own. The real number of Central American families who are still in the US, and therefore vulnerable to deportation under the new plan, is probably closer to 12,500: the number of Central American mothers with children who were ordered to be deported because they didn't show up to a court hearing.

Many immigration advocates don't have a problem with the administration's current deportation priorities in general. And while they may believe that many of the Central American families who've been ordered deported should have gotten asylum instead, that's only part of the reason they're so alarmed by the administration's new plan. The other cause for alarm is that the administration is planning to use raids to track down the families.

But the use of raids to round up families is a big — and controversial — shift

The Obama administration has conducted occasional immigration raids in the past, to round up convicted criminals or "immigration fugitives" (people who've been ordered deported but are still in the US). But in general, the administration's modus operandi hasn't been to actively hunt down unauthorized immigrants. Instead, it's used local law enforcement as a net: Immigrants who come into contact with law enforcement, especially those who fit one of the priorities, get gathered up by the federal government for deportation. Because there's so much more coordination between local and federal agents about immigrants under the Obama administration than there was in the past, this has allowed the government to deport a lot of people (especially during Obama's first term) relatively quietly.

Under George W. Bush, on the other hand, immigration raids — whether on residential neighborhoods or in workplaces — were the centerpiece of immigration enforcement. They weren't as efficient in scooping up hundreds of thousands of immigrants as the later Obama tactics were (those programs were still being developed). But they were another way local law enforcement could help federal agents enforce immigration laws. And they were high-profile, media-friendly demonstrations that the Bush administration cared about tracking down unauthorized immigrants.

Raids also traumatized immigrant communities — decreasing trust in local police, local government, schools, etc. Unauthorized immigrants got the message the raids were designed to send: They weren't safe anywhere. And people who lived alongside unauthorized immigrants worried that in the chaos of an ICE raid, they could be snatched up too.

Theoretically, the 2016 raids won't result in immigrants who've lived in the US for years getting rounded up and deported, including those who would qualify for protection from deportation if the administration's 2014 executive actions get upheld by the Supreme Court. But the administration has historically gotten a lot of resistance from ICE agents on the ground when agents apprehend unauthorized immigrants and then get told to let them go. And while the Obama administration appears to have gotten more control over recalcitrant field agents, it's not at all clear whether it will be able to keep that control when it's sending agents out on raids.

The Obama administration doesn't need to persuade Congress that it's enforcing immigration law — but it might want to persuade the Supreme Court

Every time the Obama administration has cracked down on immigration enforcement and infuriated advocates, there's been a political reason. During Obama's first term, the administration was trying to persuade Republicans in Congress that it could be trusted to enforce immigration laws, so that Republicans would come to the table and pass comprehensive immigration reform. It didn't work.

In 2014, the harsh response to the "border crisis" was motivated in part by fear of the midterm elections — Democrats in the federal government were very afraid of being seen as unable to protect the country's borders. That didn't work either.

The Obama administration appears to have given up on trying to persuade Congress of anything, and it doesn't have any more elections to worry about. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have anything to prove to anyone. Because the Supreme Court is currently trying to decide whether to take up the lawsuit between the federal government and dozens of Republican-led states over Obama's 2014 executive actions on immigration — which the administration sees as key to its legacy on the issue.

So far, the court case has gone against the Obama administration. Both the district court judge and the Fifth Circuit put the administration's plans to protect millions more unauthorized immigrants from deportation on hold while the courts consider whether those plans are constitutional (which is a hint that, according to those judges, they probably aren't). The Supreme Court has always been more likely to side with the federal government in this case than the lower courts are, but that doesn't mean the case is a slam dunk for the administration — or that the Court will decide to take it up this year at all, rather than taking it up next session when Obama is already out of office.

One of the biggest legal questions about the administration's immigration policy is whether there's a "limiting principle" — in other words, whether there are any unauthorized immigrants the government actually feels it has to enforce the law against. Deporting thousands of mothers with children is certainly one way to demonstrate that the Obama administration really does feel it has to enforce the law in some cases.

Furthermore, the 2014 memo that made immigrants with deportation orders a priority was part of the same set of executive actions as the programs the Obama administration is currently challenging in court. By making a big show of enforcing the priorities it set for itself, the administration is demonstrating that it takes that whole set of policies seriously — not just the parts that are nice to unauthorized immigrants. And it invites the Court to do the same.

This is very bad news for Hillary Clinton

If the Obama administration's plan succeeds at deporting the Central American families it's targeting, it's going to be a political success only insofar as it keeps border security off the table in the 2016 election — exactly what the administration failed to do in 2014. But it's very difficult to predict how things will shake out: not just how the policy itself will work, but how it'll be seen by the public. And since we don't yet know who will receive the nomination of at least one major party in 2016, you almost certainly shouldn't trust anyone who makes claims about the administration's plan being good for Democrats or for Republicans in the general election — though there are definitely particular variables to watch for. Attention and outrage to the raids in Latino and Spanish-language media, for example, could be a warning sign that the raids could depress Latinos from turning out for Democrats in the general election.

In the meantime, they're definitely having an effect on the primaries. In the Republican primary, the administration's raid plan has become another thing Donald Trump has taken credit for (although he of course mischaracterizes the policy).

In the Democratic primary, on the other hand, the raids are something that all three remaining candidates clearly feel the need to come out against, and swiftly.

As I've written, the immigrant rights movement firmly believes that the 2016 Democratic nominee ought to be to the left of President Obama on immigration. That's not the standard for their support — it's the minimum requirement for them. Martin O'Malley and, more recently, Bernie Sanders have surpassed that expectation with policy platforms that read like a wish list for immigration advocates.

Hillary Clinton has at times struggled to meet the minimum expectation of staying to Obama's left — particularly when it comes to immigration enforcement and deportations, and especially when being to Obama's left means directly criticizing the administration. And the last time she really upset immigrant rights advocates was talking about Central American children and families in the summer of 2014, when she said that most of the children coming to the US, even if they were unsafe in Central America, should be sent back.

The new raids will inevitably remind advocates about Clinton's 2014 comment. That will only increase their pressure on Clinton to take a strong stand against the new raids.

So far, Clinton's campaign has issued a statement saying she has "concerns" about the Obama administration's plan. It's not clear if advocates will find that acceptable (it is pretty likely many will not). O'Malley and Sanders have both come out strongly against the plan, and both of them — particularly O'Malley — are likely to start criticizing Clinton for not denouncing it outright.

Clinton demonstrated at the most recent Democratic debate that she's already looking toward the general election, and is no longer focused on running against opponents in a Democratic primary. But the immigration raids are exactly the sort of issue that could feed resentment of Clinton among one segment of the progressive base, at exactly the time when she wants Democrats to start rallying around her — and make Latino voters bitter about the general election right when she needs them to start getting excited.

It's not clear whether that segment of the base matters enough to the Clinton campaign for them to take a stronger position against the Obama administration — but it's a situation the campaign almost certainly didn't want to be in to begin with.

UPDATE: This piece originally said that the cases of families who'd already been ordered deported are "settled, legally speaking." That can be true, but isn't necessarily so, and in fact at least some of the families arrested in raids are fighting the deportations in court.