A refugee situation calls for solutions, not more deportations

(Joe Bursky via Flickr)

At yesterday’s press briefing, Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the Administration’s plans to find and deport Central American refugees — mostly young mothers and children — who arrived in the U.S. after January 1, 2014 but were denied asylum in the immigration courts.

REPORTER: I wanted to just ask you about the raids that we’re hearing are going to be coming in the next few weeks and months on the Central American migrants who have crossed the southern border. Quite a few immigration advocates as well as some Democratic members of Congress have expressed very deep concerns that some of the people affected here are women and children, many of them who are not afforded due process in these immigration proceedings when they cross the border but are being sent back to very dangerous conditions. One of them said today that the President’s decision to conduct these raids and use this approach to these people was nothing more than a callous political calculation with real and grave humanitarian consequences. So what’s your response, first of all, to that?

Earnest began by justifying the raids as part of a continuing operation by the Department of Homeland Security to stay true to the Administration’s enforcement priorities — which focus on dangerous criminals, national security risks and recent border crossers.

MR. EARNEST: Well, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to correct so many misconceptions. The first is what the Department of Homeland Security has indicated is that the current operations are a continuation of operations that were announced back in January and in March. And these operations are being conducted consistent with the enforcement priorities that President Obama and Secretary Johnson laid out back in the fall of 2014. That is these operations are focused on convicted criminals and others who could pose a risk to local communities. The other enforcement priority are individuals that we’ve previously described as recent border-crossers — individuals who have been apprehended crossing the border illegally since January 1st of 2014. Those are our enforcement priorities and these operations are being conducted consistent with them.

Before sending its Press Secretary out to talk to the media, the Obama administration might want to take a look at the law and its own immigration enforcement priorities.

First, Earnest is wrong to refer to Central American asylum seekers as “illegal border crossers.” It’s not illegal to approach the U.S. border and apply for asylum — that’s what asylum is for. In fact, most of the women and children who’ve fled the horrific violence in Central America surrender to Border Patrol agents upon arrival in the U.S. That’s hardly surreptitious entry.

Second, Earnest went on to suggest that it’s okay to deport the targeted families because they’ve already had their day in immigration court and were ordered deported after a fair hearing:

Operations are only being conducted to enforce orders from immigration courts. So only individuals who have been given an order of removal are subject to these operations, and we’ll make sure that these operations are only conducted after all pending claims for asylum or humanitarian relief have been exhausted.

What Earnest failed to tell the press was that the immigration courts, which are underfunded, understaffed and overworked often fail miserably in their mission to provide Central American refugees with fair asylum hearings. Earlier this year Phil Wolgin, Managing Director for the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress of the Center for American Progress, outlined some of the “major due process” failings documented by advocates working with Central American Refugees:

First, these mothers and children often receive seriously flawed or incomplete information when they arrive in the United States. Many families do not receive adequate notice of their right to claim asylum or to appeal a denial of asylum, and many have not been told of their right to seek counsel. Likewise, evidence suggests that the government fails to adequately inform some unaccompanied children of future court dates, leading to in absentia deportation orders that a child would not even know to contest.
Second, even the families that make it to court often appear without legal representation: Only 47 percent of the families picked up in the first weekend of raids had counsel when they appeared in deportation hearings. Because asylum cases before the immigration courts are adversarial — meaning that a trained government attorney argues against the individual in question — access to counsel is critical. And although immigrants are entitled to due process under the Constitution, there is not currently a guaranteed right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings.

A new report by Guillermo Cantor, PhD and Tory Johnson, published by the American Immigration Council, makes clear that being denied asylum does not mean an immigrant you be safely deported to your country of origin. Evaluating testimony from Central American women who were deported after receiving “due process” in the United States, the authors conclude: The process and systems through which they passed only contribute to the trauma, violence, and desolation that many Central American families already endured in their home country,” and “these individuals have limited chances of living a normal, safe, and healthy life.”

Earnest’s use of its immigration enforcement priorities to justify the administration’s deportation of families to the undisputed cauldron of violence in Central America is wrong on its face. Contrary to what Mr. Earnest told the press yesterday, the Obama administration has taken the position that immigrants are not to be considered enforcement priorities if there are “compelling and exceptional factors that clearly indicate the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety.” Clearly, the majority of women and children who’ve endured the treacherous journey north to escape the violent, gang infested, crime ridden situation in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador should not be targeted as removal priorities.

One has to dig deep into Earnest’s press briefing yesterday to find the real justification for the Administration’s zeal in deporting Central American refugees regardless of the life threatening violence they face in Central America. The raids against Central American families have less to do with adherence to the rule of law than crass politics — President Obama wants to avoid another border surge and central to his strategy is sending a message to Central American families that they’d better not try and escape the violence that threatens the lives because they’ll receive no protection from the U.S. The truth is the Administration is using vulnerable women and children in an effort to deter another border surge.

MR. EARNEST: So the administration is committed to enforcing the law. The side benefit here is also this should send a pretty clear signal to everyone, particularly individuals who are considering having their children smuggled into the country, that that’s a really bad idea. It’s a dangerous journey. There’s all kinds of evidence to indicate that these human traffickers have bad intentions and subject people who have paid them to horrible dangers, that those who are trafficked end up often being victimized themselves. So this should send a very clear signal to everybody who might be contemplating this that the pitch being peddled by human traffickers that they can get their child into the United States and their child would be allowed to stay is false. That is not an available option. And given the dangers in making that journey, it is not something that parents should even consider for their kids.
And that is a principle that is rooted in a desire to try to protect people in other countries who are in a pretty desperate situation. And there are a host of other investments that our country is committed to making in places like Honduras and El Salvador to try to address the root causes of this migration that we’ve seen over the last couple of years.

Of course it’s a dangerous journey north which to which no parent would want to subject their child. But that doesn’t help the Administration’s argument. It defeats it. The fact that parents risk their children’s lives to send them north underscores the unspeakably horrible situation in Central America.

When another reporter called Earnest on this clear conflict of logic, he ignored the question and pivoted back to his talking points.

REPORTER: Does the President regard these people primarily as economic migrants, or as refugees? Because if the President regards them as refugees, the deterrence message that you just recited that is clearly the intent of some of the enforcement actions doesn’t seem to apply.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the intent is to enforce the law. That is the primary intent. But, again, for those who may be considering entrusting themselves or the care of their children to human traffickers, this should be a very clear signal that the sales pitch from the human traffickers is a false one and it gives false hope to people who are in a desperate situation.
What the administration has sought to do is to address some of the root causes of migration. There’s been a $700 million investment that was appropriated by Congress a year or two ago that is being used to invest in the security situation in those countries. It’s also being used to invest in economic development efforts in those countries to try to address some of those root causes.
There’s also been a discussion that has been initiated by the State Department, working with the U.N., to try to establish a process where people with legitimate refugee claims can make them not in the United States or at the U.S. border, but rather in their home countries. That is another way that we can give people access to refugee protection without having to embark on a dangerous journey.
So we’re thinking about this creatively in a lot of ways. But there is a principle that’s at play here about enforcing the law, and it’s one that the administration takes quite seriously.

If there’s a need to address root causes, that’s acknowledgement that there is a problem. If there’s a need for an in-country refugee process, that’s acknowledgement that there is a problem.

Addressing root causes and creating an orderly, safe refugee process are essential to-do items for this Administration. But they don’t help the refugees who have already fled. Sending them back to countries with no rule of law, where gangs are rampant and no one is safe, certainly doesn’t either.