On February 4, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security held a hearing on the increased numbers of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Judiciary Committee website titled its report: “Another Surge of Illegal Immigrants Along the Southwest Border: Is This the Obama Administration’s New Normal?” In addition to incorrectly referring to refugees as “illegal immigrants,” the title gives away the true purpose of the hearing: not humanitarian or practical concern, but an excuse to make political capital out of the issue. The truth is that increased incarcerations and casting asylum seekers as criminals is simply wrong.
The influx of Central Americans coming to the U.S. is a refugee crisis, not a border security issue. People fleeing persecution and presenting themselves to border officials for protection are not a security threat. We have the ability to both regulate our borders and uphold our values by providing due process and asylum to those fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous countries. Instead, we seem determined to do the opposite.
In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has been enforcing a policy to deport refugees who arrived in the U.S. after May 2014 and have been issued orders of removal. Officials now go specifically to the homes of people with children. At the end of December, I visited Charlotte, Raleigh and other small towns in North Carolina. Community activists, teachers, and school officials all told us that the kids are not coming to school. Parents are canceling the children’s medical appointments. At one Latino grocery store the aisles were empty. Fear is keeping people from public places.
We are not a country where people should be frightened to answer knocks on their doors. Additionally, these tactics don’t work. Border Enforcement must stop its fear-mongering.
Central Americans know the dangers of the journey north: rape, assault, and extortion on the route, detention and possible deportation once they make it to the U.S. Still they come.
Our southern border is, in fact, more secure than ever before. Current apprehension rates are less than a third of what they were in 2000. Arrivals from almost every other country in the Americas, aside from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are down. Today Central Americans, far from “sneaking” across the border, turn themselves in to border guards and ask for asylum, which is not only a legal and human right, it is a sign that our border are secure.
All of the Central American families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border are put into removal or court proceedings where they have the right to request asylum. A request for asylum, initiates a complex and thorough process of vetting the claim, assessing the credibility of the applicant and thorough security checks. Instead, of investing resources into strengthening the capacity and quality of this system, the administration and Congress have focused on deterrence and removal. The administration has expedited removal hearings, detained thousands of families, and subjected asylum seekers to frightening legal processes without access to information or counsel.
Congress and the administration must stop treating the arrival of refugees as an indication of a porous border. It is not. It is a failure of bureaucracy and an issue for political grandstanding. We need the political will to return to the values that made this country a leader in the protection of refugees through policies that balanced compassion, human rights, and the rule of law.
Brané is the Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, which advocates for policies to protect the rights of asylum seeking women and children and other vulnerable migrant populations in the United States and around the world.