Hispanic Caucus members rejected from meeting with ICE
8:40 PM, Feb 16, 2017
5:18 AM, Feb 17, 2017
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement intended to mollify lawmakers who are concerned one week after a round-up of nearly 700 undocumented immigrants had the opposite effect Thursday, as organizers expelled rank-and-file members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The Democratic lawmakers decried the Trump administration and Republicans for keeping the caucus out of the meeting after they were canceled on earlier in the week.
The topic of the meeting was last week's enforcement actions by ICE. CHC members had requested the meeting to get information on who was targeted by the raids -- and whether the sweep was broader than similar enforcement by the Obama administration.
After being scheduled Tuesday, the meeting was abruptly canceled by ICE. A Republican leadership aide said that ICE then reached out to House Speaker Paul Ryan's office to arrange a bipartisan meeting, which they set for Thursday.
Members of the CHC had tried to attend the Thursday meeting in the Capitol despite not being on the guest list, but were asked to leave, prompting them to hold a hallway news conference in protest and to point fingers at the administration and speaker's office.
"Look around, folks, nobody here is armed. These are not criminals, these are not gang members. The only thing we want today is transparency in our democratic system," said California Democrat Rep. Lou Correa. "We just want information -- why are we being denied?"
Democrats barred from the meeting included Correa, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, as well as California Reps. Norma Torres, Grace Napolitano, Nanette Barragán and Juan Vargas.
None of them were on a guest list for the meeting provided to CNN in advance on Wednesday night by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office.
The leader of the CHC, Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, was in the meeting with ICE, as was Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and top Democrats on relevant committees. Ryan's office did not have a list of Republicans who attended.
While Democrats accused Ryan's office of playing games with who could attend, spokeswoman AshLee Strong said the goal was to include members with jurisdiction.
"The speaker's office organized a small bipartisan briefing that was, at the request of DHS, limited to members with jurisdictional interests in immigration enforcement," Strong said in a statement. "Members of the CHC expressed interest in attending, and to accommodate the request, we welcomed the chair of the CHC to join on behalf of the other members. We are confident that the CHC chair is capable of representing the views of her caucus, and this arrangement was made very clear to the CHC ahead of time."
But lawmakers were furious at being excluded, with many saying their constituents are "panicked" about the recent ICE enforcement and unsure if their communities are safe. The Democrats said they still are seeking answers from ICE about whether they are prioritizing serious criminals -- as the Obama administration did -- or whether any undocumented immigrant could be deported.
"It's not acceptable to my constituents when I say I'm still asking for answers," said Barragan. "They're afraid. My own mother said to me yesterday, who's an American citizen, 'Is it safe for me to go out?' ... That is just unacceptable"
"I've been in politics a long time, and I've never seen this chaos," Vargas said. "It's emanating truthfully from the White House, but it's infecting Congress now. Unfortunately, our speaker now is infected. And he's a good person, but he too has been infected now where he says, 'No, we'll determine who you see.'"
The Democrats who were in the meeting held their own news conference afterward -- saying they still were left with questions.
According to a fact sheet from ICE given out at the meeting and provided to CNN by a Democratic aide, 176 non-criminal undocumented immigrants were arrested in the sweeps across five enforcement regions.
Of the individuals who had criminal convictions, 161 were driving under the influence and 33 were other traffic offenses. Other crimes ranged from drug crimes, weapons charges, sexual assault and two homicides to trespassing, shoplifting and illegal entry into the US.
According to a readout of the meeting from ICE, acting director Thomas Homan told lawmakers that mainly public safety threats were arrested.
"Mr. Homan emphasized that ICE does not conduct arrests indiscriminately and does not establish checkpoints; rather, the agency's deportation officers target pre-identified individuals for arrest at specific locations based on law enforcement leads," said spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea.
"He further stated that officers frequently encounter additional individuals in the pursuit of their targets. When officers determine other individuals are in the United States in violation of the federal immigration laws, the officers make arrests. Every arrest is made on a case by case basis," Elzea continued.
ICE's actions have been scrutinized since they began to come to light, as fear in immigrant communities have been running high after Trump's heated anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail and since the election.
While the Obama administration conducted similar actions, Trump has enacted an executive order that sets wide enforcement priorities that could include every undocumented immigrant in the US, even if they are only suspected of a crime or being a public safety threat.
Lawmakers were especially concerned about recipients of deferred action -- immigrants brought to the US as children given work permits under an Obama administration program that requires background checks. One recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is currently detained in Seattle, accused by the government of gang affiliation despite his lawyers and family calling the charge fabricated.
"There are potentially 11 million people who meet the standard for deportation by their expanded rules," Pelosi said after the meeting. "Their prosecutorial discretion is uneven in the country as to how this is all enforced. And the resources that would be needed to apprehend and make judgments about these people is enormous. You have to ask yourself as a country, of course we want everyone who is a danger to our country to be dealt with, deported, if that's the case. But it doesn't mean that we instill fear into our country."
Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose San Antonio-area district was impacted by the raids, said his impression was that the Trump administration was beginning mass deportations.
"It was hard to not leave that meeting and believe that the Trump administration is going to target as many immigrants as possible," Castro said. "The only hesitation they seemed to have is whether they will go after DACA recipients."
The lawmakers in the meeting also decried their colleagues' exclusion.
"This meeting was unique and I've never seen anything like it, only one like it, and hopefully never again," Pelosi said. "They said the administration would determine which Democrats would be invited to the meeting. This is highly unusual."