By JULIA PRESTON
December 22, 2013
NEW ORLEANS — Karen Sandoval’s promising life in this city fell apart in one day last summer when she went to buy school supplies for her two daughters.
Ms. Sandoval, a Honduran immigrant here illegally, was riding with the man her girls have always called their father. Immigration agents, seeing a dilapidated car, pulled them over. They released Ms. Sandoval but detained her partner, a Nicaraguan also here illegally, and he was soon deported.
Now Ms. Sandoval, 28, is grieving her loss and scrambling to support her children without her partner, Enrique Morales, and the income from his thriving flooring business. She sees no future for the girls, who are both American citizens, in her home country or his. So Ms. Sandoval is facing the possibility that she may never see Mr. Morales again.
“It is very difficult to explain to two little girls that Daddy will not be with us anymore,” Ms. Sandoval said.
Since taking office, President Obama has deported more than 1.9 million foreigners, immigration officials announced last week, a record for an American president. The officials said they focused on removing criminals, serious immigration offenders and recent border crossers, with 98 percent of deportees in 2013 in those groups, while sparing workers and their families. Mr. Obama is also pressing for an overhaul of immigration laws with a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
But immigrant leaders say the enforcement has a broad impact on their communities, with deportations still separating bread-winning parents from children and unauthorized immigrants from family members here legally, including American citizens.
Administration officials say the deportation numbers — more than 368,000 this fiscal year — are driven by a congressional requirement that more than 30,000 immigrants be detained daily. They acknowledge that the lines are becoming harder to draw between high-priority violators and those with strong family ties.
For immigrants, the steady deportations have compounded their frustration with Congress, where the House took no action this year after the Senate passed a bipartisan overhaul bill in June. Increasingly advocates are turning their pressure on the president, saying he should use his executive powers to halt removals.
A 24-year-old South Korean, Ju Hong, brought attention to those demands when he repeatedly interrupted Mr. Obama during a speech in San Francisco last month, calling on him to stop deportations of all unauthorized immigrants in the country. In recent days, anti-deportation protesters blocked entrances to immigration detention centers in southwestern Ohio, Northern Virginia and downtown Los Angeles, with more than two dozen people arrested.
In New Orleans, street sweeps by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents this year also led to a protest. On Nov. 14, nearly two dozen demonstrators, including 14 immigrants without legal status, tied up midday traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections for nearly three hours until the local police arrested them.
“Our people feel they can’t go to the store to buy food or walk their children to school,” said Santos Alvarado, 51, a Honduran construction worker who joined the protest here even though he has legal papers. “We couldn’t be quiet any longer.”
Many immigrants here have been stunned by the arrests, in which some people seemed to be stopped based solely on their Latino appearance, because they had been living here uneventfully since they came in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to work on reconstruction.
One of those workers, Jimmy Barraza, was unloading a carful of groceries on Aug. 16 when agents pulled up with pistols drawn, handcuffing him as well as his teenage son, a United States citizen. A mobile fingerprint check of Mr. Barraza, who is also Honduran, revealed an old court order for his deportation.
Mr. Barraza, 28, won release from detention but is still fighting to remain. His wife is a longtime legal immigrant, and he has two other younger children who are American citizens.
“If they deport me,” he said, “who will keep my son in line? Who will support my family?”
Another Honduran, Irma Lemus, was packing fishing rods for a day on the bayou when cruising immigration agents spotted her family and stopped. A fingerprint check revealed that Ms. Lemus, too, had a deportation order.
“They handcuffed me in front of my children,” she recalled, speaking of a son who is 2 and a daughter who is 4.
After she spent 18 days in jail, lawyers won her release with an ankle monitor while immigration prosecutors weigh their options.
Ms. Lemus, 35, had steady work here cleaning hotels and a stable family, including a Honduran son, Joseph, who is 9 and in treatment for an eye disease, and her younger children who are American-born citizens. So she might be eligible for prosecutorial discretion, a policy the Obama administration has applied extensively to suspend deportations.
But although Ms. Lemus — like Mr. Morales, Mr. Barraza and many other illegal immigrants — had no criminal history, she did have a civil immigration record because of an earlier brush with enforcement authorities. She had failed to appear at a court hearing after she was stopped in 2006 crossing the southwest border. The judge’s order gave agents the authorization to deport her speedily.
Taking her children to Honduras, with its rampant gang violence and poor medical care, is not an option Ms. Lemus wishes to consider. So they live in anxiety that she could leave them any day.
“I think it would be so sad for all of my family,” her son Joseph said.
Many Republicans say Mr. Obama is deporting too few illegal immigrants. Robert Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the figures published last week, showing a 10 percent decrease from 2012, were “just more evidence that the Obama administration refuses to enforce our immigration laws.”
Administration officials said removal numbers were determined by a requirement, included by Congress in the immigration agency’s appropriations, to fill a daily average of about 34,000 beds in detention facilities. The mandate, which is closely monitored by oversight committees, amounts to about 400,000 removals a year.
“We are fulfilling the mandate,” John Sandweg, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview. “We want to fill the beds with the right people, that is, public safety and national security threats and individuals we are required by law to detain.”
But he noted that agents were encountering many immigrants who fit those priorities but also had family connections that could make them eligible to stay by prosecutorial discretion.
“Many of these cases are very complex and not cut-and-dry,” Mr. Sandweg said.
In New Orleans, administration officials said, the immigration agency halted some operations after the protest. They had been part of an anti-gang campaign with the local police. But random stops of Latinos were not consistent with the agency’s guidelines, the officials said.
Saket Soni, the executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said deportations had picked up again in recent days.
“If Congress doesn’t act, another 400,000 people will be deported,” said Mr. Soni, whose group helped organize the protest. “This suffering has to stop.”
Advocates argue that Mr. Obama could expand reprieves he gave to young undocumented immigrants last year. But White House officials say the only solution is for Congress to pass a path to citizenship. Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, said in an interview that Mr. Obama did not have the legal authority for a wholesale curb on deportations.
“There are not sufficient tools in his toolbox to address the heart of this problem,” she said.