Update on Central American Migrants

Photo credit: Washington Post

The number of unaccompanied children and families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (known collectively as the Northern Triangle region) increased in the last quarter of 2015.  Despite this increase the total number of arrivals is still lower for the year than what we saw in 2014.  Unchecked violence due to gang activity continues to drive people from their homes to neighboring countries.

Many leaders and government officials are unwilling to acknowledge that the people coming to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle are in fact asylum seekers.  Labeled as “illegal immigrants,” they are not always afforded the protections guaranteed to asylum seekers under U.S. and international law. Reluctance of the U.S. government to acknowledge what UNHCR is calling “a looming refugee crisis” is limiting our ability to provide meaningful assistance to those fleeing widespread and increasing violence in the Northern Triangle.

The U.S. continues to detain families in locked facilities despite a federal court ruling and prohibitions against this type of policy under international law.  Last year the Obama Administration created an in-country processing program, however advocates are concerned about this program because children must remain in dangerous situations while waiting for their claim to be processed.  After the first round of interviews, most applicants were not granted refugee status, which comes with certain benefits, but were granted humanitarian parole, which provides less benefits to the recipients than refugee status.

Recently, news broke that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to carry out enforcement raids in an effort to deport Central American migrants currently living in the U.S.  DHS claims that the raids will only be carried out against families that are under deportation orders.  However, advocates are concerned about these raids because a denial of asylum status in the U.S. does not mean that the applicant does not face danger returning home.  HIAS, NCJW, and JCA joined over 160 organizations in a letter urging President Obama to renounce the use of harsh tactics against this “incredibly vulnerable group that has already suffered horrible, uncontrolled gang violence, domestic violence, and other forms of persecution.”  Deporting families back to the Northern Triangle region is likely to place them back in the circumstances that forced them to flee in the first place.

The U.S. is largest donor for humanitarian aid to refugees and has historically taken the highest number of refugees for resettlement.  The U.S. response to the asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle must be consistent with U.S. leadership globally.  We must continue to urge our elected officials to show the same type of compassion and willingness to assist asylum seekers in our own region that we show to refugees overseas.