WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday he expected the Obama administration to pause its new campaign to deport undocumented Central American families, a policy that has led to over 120 detentions since Jan. 1 and angered Democratic lawmakers.
Reid, who leads the minority party in the Senate, told reporters on Capitol Hill that he had spoken about the issue on Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who “understands the concern we have.”
“I think you are going to find a pause in these deportations,” Reid said. He did not offer further details and said he did not know if President Barack Obama would announce the pause in deportations during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
U.S. authorities began preparing last year for their first large-scale effort to deport families who have entered the United States illegally since May 2014 while fleeing violence in Central America. More than 10,000 people could be subject to deportation under the DHS initiative, according to new figures from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The new effort marked a shift in approach to deportations, from targeting individuals to entire undocumented families with both parents and children. U.S. authorities took 121 people into custody over the first weekend in the new year, mainly in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
American officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the surge in unaccompanied children who entered the United States in 2014, when tens of thousands of minors traveling without adults flooded across the southern U.S. border illegally.
The stepped-up deportation effort has angered lawmakers in Congress. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Tuesday they were sending a letter to Obama asking him to stop the deportations.
Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told reporters 139 Democrats had signed the letter, about three-fourths of the Democrats in the House.
The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters the letter would urge the administration to change its “ill-advised policy” of deporting undocumented Central American families.
“The administration needs to go in a different direction,” Hoyer said.
He said many of the families targeted for deportation had entered the United States seeking refuge from violence in their home countries and should be treated in a manner consistent with U.S. values.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Bernard Orr)