Massachusetts religious leaders and immigration advocates on Friday demanded that President Obama immediately stop deporting immigrants to violence-plagued Central American nations and instead offer them temporary protection in the United States.
Speaking in a historic Boston church, advocates said the Obama administration could legally grant those immigrants protections similar to the ones offered to Syrians and other groups. Their pleas came hours after immigration officials said they deported 77 immigrants rounded up last weekend to Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
None were arrested in New England, but fear paralyzed communities in Boston, Waltham, and even on Martha’s Vineyard, where immigrants reportedly hid in basements as rumors of raids spread.
“Raids that terrorize the community and separate families ... are not the answer,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, while flanked by a rabbi, an imam, church pastors, and community activists. “We urge the administration to use executive authority to protect those from unsafe countries in Central America.”
As she spoke, lawmakers and advocates rallied at the White House, calling for the same relief for Central American immigrants, intensifying pressure on Obama in his final year in office to keep a promise he made during his first: To tackle the problem of illegal immigration.
This week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended last weekend’s roundup of 121 immigrants primarily in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, saying the federal government must enforce the law. He said the arrests only targeted recently arrived immigrants with deportation orders. The government of El Salvador said US officials also detained 22 Salvadorans but did not deport them because the consulate and lawyers intervened.
Some advocates viewed the deportations as an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2014, when thousands of immigrants and their children surged over the southern border. The numbers of those crossing the border later dropped, but started to rise again last year.
Advocates gathered in the Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay on Friday said the deportations are endangering immigrants, including children. This week El Salvador reported that its murder rate had increased nearly 70 percent, apparently replacing Honduras as the highest in the world. The US State Department has said these two nations are so dangerous that travelers should not travel there.
The MIRA Coalition said over 100,000 children and parents have come to the United States over the last two years fleeing violence in Central America.
The Rev. Wendy von Courter, parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, said at the press conference that Obama should display the same compassion for Central American children as he did this week when he wept for child victims of gun violence in America.
“Mr. President,” she said. “How can it be that some children are worth crying for and others not?”
Opponents of illegal immigration say the type of temporary protection advocates are calling for is typically reserved for nations engulfed in war or natural disaster. In Central America, the violence is largely due to gangs, drug trafficking, and other crime.
“Generalized violence is not the rationale for refugee status,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based nonprofit that favors limits on immigration. “And that’s what we’re talking about here.”
But even Krikorian said it’s possible that Obama will grant unauthorized immigrants temporary protection.
“This is his last year in office,” he said. “And this is something he actually does have statutory authority to do.”
On Friday, at the Church of the Covenant, the immigrant and religious leaders urged the president to act soon.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein, of the Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain, drew comparisons between today’s deportations and the US decision in 1939 to reject refugee Jews on the St. Louis from a port in Florida. The ship returned to Europe and over one fourth of the passengers died in the war, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We know what happens when people are turned back,” Reinstein said. “That is the standard our country faces now.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@ globe.com.