In his final months in office, will President Obama choose compassion or more deportations?
By Avideh Moussavian, NILC policy attorney
The Supreme Court tie in U.S. v. Texas was a frustrating setback for millions of immigrant families, but the fight must continue and another question of historical significance for immigrants looms large: Will President Obama, in the final months of his administration, continue to round up and deport Central American mothers, children and youth seeking safe refuge in the United States?
Since the first days of 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has engaged in a series of aggressive raids targeting hundreds of women, children and youth who have fled El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They come from countries that have suffered from conflicts and massive economic instability — largely as a result of wars and foreign trade policies that have benefited the U.S. while incubating treacherous conditions of organized crime and corruption and epidemic levels of violence, particularly gender-based violence. Like millions of other refugees before them and today — those of Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere — these are families and youth seeking protection. They have fled out of a life-threatening necessity to choose between life and near certain death. We should hardly call this a choice at all.
And yet, instead of embracing this population and offering safe haven, this is how our government has responded: It has used the terrifying tactic of raids — surprise, early morning arrival of multiple, heavily armed officers who provide false or misleading information to gain entry into homes or to arrest young people on their way to school or work. It has also locked up mothers, children and youth who have survived trauma and violence, who overwhelmingly have strong claims for protection but who may have never had an attorney a real chance to explore their legal rights, or a fair day in court. For some of these families, they were only spared deportation after literally being pulled off a deportation flight at the very last minute because they were able to find a lawyer who filed an asylum claim for them. When the stakes are life and death, due process means protecting rights every step of the way
The Obama administration has tried to sanitize the brutal nature of these raids by calling these Central American mothers, children and youth “enforcement priorities” and saying that by imposing the harsh punishment of arrest, detention and deportation on those who manage to survive the treacherous journey to the U.S., it is sending a message of “deterrence.” It is telling the world that our message to refugees is, “Don’t come.”
We are so much better than this as a nation. When developing nations host an estimated 86 percent of the world’s refugees, we can certainly be more generous. We have been so much more welcoming in the past, and we must live up to our best values. The message to President Obama is: Stop the raids. Respond to this as an urgent refugee situation. Explore the root causes for the violence and poverty these Central Americans are fleeing. Make sure anyone facing deportation has a truly fair day in court. President Obama’s immigration legacy — and the credibility of some of our finest American values — depends on it.