Time to Reprioritize: Four False Assumptions in the Administration’s Response to the Central American Refugee Crisis

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Author: Emma Buckhout

The Obama Administration has six months left—it’s time it set its policy straight on immigrants and refugees seeking protection, particularly those coming from Central America.

Since the infamous 2014 “border surge” of unaccompanied children and families arriving at the U.S. southern border, the president and numerous high-level officials have acknowledged that the current humanitarian crisis in Central America must be addressed. And yet, the administration continues to employ an immigration strategy that prioritizes enforcement while minimizing or undermining any protection efforts for possible refugees or asylum seekers from this region.

In the beginning of May 2016 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) let leak that it would be conducting a new thirty day “surge” of raids targeting Central American families who had arrived in the United States after January 1, 2014. These raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are an escalation of similar raids in the beginning of this year and the ongoing enforcement actions targeting recently-arrived families. They resulted in the immediate apprehension of 121 individuals in January. Another 336 individuals were reportedly apprehended under “Operation Border Guardian,” and most recently, families continue to be targeted—at least 40 mothers and children have been apprehended at home, work, or on the way to school since the May announcement.

These operations have spread fear throughout communities across the United States, and allies have reported that the news has reached families back in Central America that they would be the targets of harsh enforcement and persecution if they cross the U.S. border. And yet, these raids have done nothing to address or change the reasons why thousands of children and families have fled, and are continuing to flee, the Northern Triangle.

The Obama Administration’s strategies for immigration enforcement and its rhetoric on protection are in conflict; and they will continue to fail to properly enforce or protect if the following four false assumptions are not corrected.

1.       “Felons not families”—crossing the border in search of protection is illegal.

It is not illegal to request asylum or humanitarian protection at the U.S. border. The administration continues to refer to anyone who crosses the U.S. border without prior authorization as crossing “illegally” and thus immediately criminalizes potential recipients of protection, places them in the immigration enforcement machine, and increases the burden of proof that they could qualify for asylum.

In his January statement, DHS Secretary Johnson asserted that these raids “should come as no surprise” because the government had vowed to remove “enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children.” The first priority level of DHS’s three-tier enforcement priorities includes convicted criminals and threats to public safety, anyone who has crossed the border illegally after January 1, 2014. That cutoff date specifically encompasses the peak of the surge of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America arriving at the U.S. southern border fleeing the growing humanitarian crisis of extreme violence, corruption, and poverty.

Individuals from the region, especially young men, women, children and LGBTII individuals, continue to experience multiple forms of violence and persecution. Last year, the death toll in the Northern Triangle countries surpassed that of every active war zone except Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Hondura have some of the world’s highest rates of femicide and sexual violence against women, and are facing increasing levels of internal displacement—in El Salvador in 2015, 324,000 people were displaced by crime and violence. This violence is perpetuated not only by gangs and organized crime but also by increasingly militarized armed forces and law enforcement in the countries. Victims have little to no access to justice for the violence they experience; over 80% of the crimes they face on a daily basis remain in impunity. Even worse, many fear approaching the very law enforcement bodies meant to protect them because of their role in perpetuating the violence.

Accordingly, research shows that rather than being economic migrants, more and more of the migrants from the Northern Triangle and Mexico fit a refugee profile. A 2014 UNHCR report found that almost 60% of unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle and Mexico were fleeing violence and merited some form of international protection. Asylum applications from the Northern Triangle have increased throughout the region—in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama they have increased by nearly thirteen times what they were in 2008. The UNHCR has begun to issue interpretive guidelines on why all individuals from these countries could qualify for for refugee protection, starting with El Salvador.

Despite this evidence, in its panic over border security, the U.S. government has prioritized detaining these children and families and placing them in fast-track procedures that leave them without legal counsel or due process and deport them back to the dangers they fled. Of note, of the 121 individuals apprehended in the January ICE raids, only 70 were deported because it was found that the remaining had not “exhausted appropriate legal remedies” as ICE claimed.

2.       Enforcement will work as a deterrent.

The Obama Administration has made deterrence a central part of its immigration enforcement strategy, but it needs to reevaluate the results. In his response to questions about the ICE raids, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “if this serves to discourage people from considering to make this journey, that would be a good thing.” Since 2014, the U.S. government has engaged with governments in the region to do public messaging campaigns about the danger of the journey north through Mexico and to try to convince parents not to send their children. During Secretary Johnson’s recent trip to Honduras, DHS even tweeted “Secretary Johnson’s message is clear: if you come to this country illegally, we will send you back.”

A recent American Immigration Council report and analysis of a survey in Honduras found that these public messaging campaigns are indeed succeeding in convincing the vast majority of the people surveyed that it had gotten more difficult and less safe to cross the U.S. border, and that deportations had increased. However, that same report found that the increased awareness of the dangers of the journey had no impact on the decision to flee. It concludes: “The unprecedented levels of crime and violence that have overwhelmed the Northern Triangle countries in recent years have produced a refugee situation for those directly in the line of fire, making no amount of danger or chance of deportation sufficient to dissuade those victims from leaving.”

3.       Enforcement is part of the solution to the humanitarian crisis and root causes driving people out of the Northern Triangle.

In January, Secretary Johnson stated, “More border security and removals, by themselves, will not overcome the underlying conditions that currently exist in Central America.” The underlying premise that enforcement is part of any strategy to address root causes is wrong. Enforcement is not deterring people from fleeing, or improving their security at home to allow them to stay. Rather, increasing border enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as along Mexico’s southern border and in Central America, is preventing individuals with real protection needs from reaching safety. And the U.S. hyper-focus on enforcement and “stemming the flow” has led it to support the interdiction of asylum seekers, at its own border, and throughout the region.

The real solutions to address the humanitarian crisis and root causes must be comprehensive and include the implementation of immediate protection measures as well as longer term partnerships with the Central American governments to address the high levels of corruption and impunity. Aid to the region should focus on the prevention of violence and the strengthening of community led initiatives to improve citizen security and protect human rights.

4.       Medium and long-term refugee and protection programs will address short term needs.

President Obama pushed for unprecedented levels of U.S. aid to the region, $750 million of which Congress approved for fiscal year 2016. The State Department has worked with UNHCR to stand up the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program to allow children facing violence in the Northern Triangle who have parents with legal status in the United States to apply to join them. And Secretary Kerry announced in January that the U.S. government would be working with partners in the region to further expand access to refugee processing.

However, there is still much information needed about the content of the Central America aid package to know if it will be effective and in-country processing programs are limited and take time to set up. As of April 2016, only 200 children of the 8,000 applicants had arrived to the United States through the CAM program. And since January, no further progress has been announced on the expanded refugee processing program. Advancing and strengthening these measures should be part of a comprehensive package to address the humanitarian and protection crisis in the Northern Triangle. Granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for the Northern Triangle countries would also be an important element, and one that 26 U.S. Senators recently called for in a letter to President Obama, echoing previous calls by civil society and lawmakers to do so at the beginning of this year. The support of international organizations is also crucial to strengthen asylum systems throughout the region in neighboring countries such as Mexico.

Most importantly, the U.S. government must not assume that the valuable work to implement and strengthen these programs can replace providing those arriving at our borders with protection in the immediate short-term.


In his 2014 immigration speech, President Obama attempted to set a (false) distinction of wanting to deport “felons, not families,” yet families are increasingly falling within his top priority level. It’s time to reprioritize. The contradictions are rife and time is of the essence, not only for the Obama Administration, but for the thousands of children and families fleeing spiraling violence.

On this World Refugee Day, we encourage the Obama Administration to consider reframing its view. It must recognize that refugees are not just selected in a faraway place, but are also arriving at our border from the countries in our backyard. And they should be treated as such instead of criminals.