(CNSNews.com) – While speaking Sunday at the national convention of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group that favors a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal aliens, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said federal immigration agents “terrorized” and divided families during immigration raids.
“The system isn't working,” said Obama, “when 12 million people live in hiding, and hundreds of thousands cross our borders illegally each year; when companies hire undocumented immigrants instead of legal citizens to avoid paying overtime or to avoid a union; when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids; when nursing mothers are torn from their babies; when children come home from school to find their parents missing; when people are detained without access to legal counsel.”
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are not out to terrorize anyone, ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly told Cybercast News Service, while stressing that she was not speaking about the comments of any individual, but only in general terms regarding criticism of ICE.
“Raids”– a term Reilly said she does not like – are not random, she said, but are operations that are always ordered by a federal judge or federal prosecutor through a warrant.
“Law enforcement is inconvenient for some people who see the world differently than the U.S. legal system does,” Reilly told Cybercast News Service. “They have their own reasons for creating that invective and hurling it against ICE. We enforce the laws Congress has made, and we are not at liberty to change or enforce them differently.”
“These kinds of stories only confuse the issue and, unfortunately, frighten the very people that the people telling the stories are dedicated to helping,” Reilly said. “They’re creating a climate of fear where there doesn’t need to be fear. We do our jobs very professionally and very effectively.”
Regarding children, Reilly said if both parents are apprehended, one will be allowed to return home to care for the children, so long as the two parents are not involved criminal activities and their only offense is being in the country illegally.
Further, she said, when a work site is raided, it’s on the order of a warrant issued by a federal prosecutor. When a home is raided, it’s because a federal judge signed a deportation order often after an illegal alien failed to appear in court from a previous arrest.
Obama, an Illinois senator, and his Republican opponent Arizona Sen. John McCain, have heavily courted Hispanic voters, the fastest growing voting bloc in the country.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates strict enforcement of the immigration laws, was critical of the language Obama used to describe the actions of ICE officers.
“It’s overblown and over the top rhetoric,” Mehlman told Cybercast News Service. “They are not terrorizing people. If you break the law, you can be detained and deported. Anyone could make the same argument about any other law enforcement. If I don’t pay my taxes, does it mean the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) is terrorizing me when they come to my house?”
During his La Raza speech, Obama also said that as president he would push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.
“The 12 million people in the shadows, the communities taking immigration enforcement into their own hands, the neighborhoods seeing rising tensions as citizens are pitted against new immigrants ... they're counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves - rhetoric that poisons our political discourse, degrades our democracy, and has no place in this great nation,” Obama said.
“They're counting on us to rise above the fear and demagoguery, the pettiness and partisanship, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform,” he added.
McCain also supports a pathway to citizenship and co-sponsored an immigration bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that was supported by most congressional Democrats but opposed by most congressional Republicans, many of whom called it an “amnesty.”
After the bill failed twice in Congress, McCain said he wants to concentrate on securing the border first, and then move to a pathway to citizenship.
The McCain-Kennedy bill required illegal aliens to pay back taxes and go to the back of the line in waiting for citizenship. However, it did not require them to leave the country.
Obama criticized McCain for changing his focus to border enforcement.
“Now, I know Sen. McCain used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform - and I admired him for it,” Obama said. “But when he was running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance and said that he wouldn’t even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote.
“Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular. And that's the commitment I'm making to you,” Obama said.
“Yes, they broke the law, and we should not excuse that,” Obama said. “But we cannot – and should not – deport 12 million people. That would turn America into something we're not, something we don't want to be.”
Mehlman said no one was seriously arguing for mass deportation.
“Nobody ever suggested you deport 12 million people,” he said. “If you enforce the law, many of those 12 million or 15 million would find their way home on their own if they are convinced there is not a good reason to remain here illegally. If you make it more difficult to come and remain here illegally, it will not be a tremendous benefit for them to remain.”