Tonight the president is expected to announce executive action to defer deportation and provide work permission for up to 5 million immigrants who are presently in the United States without authorization. This move is anticipated to cover a number of groups, including parents of U.S. citizens and legal resident children.  

But one group may very well be left out in the cold. What will executive action mean for asylum seekers and refugees? 

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Many of the women and children fleeing persecution and violence from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who crossed the southern border earlier this year arrived to find an administration that locked them away in immigration detention.  U.S. immigration authorities have also opposed releasing mothers and their children from detention on bond— essentially labeling them as threats to national security. 

If the administration thought it would be politically expedient to treat these women and children harshly in order to “secure the border” and advance immigration reforms, it was wrong. The elections have passed, the president is moving ahead with executive action, and the political battles will continue regardless of how we treat these vulnerable women and children. 

These kids will spend their first Thanksgiving in America in immigration detention—not to mention Christmas. Does Santa deliver presents to toddlers in immigration detention facilities?   

Just this week U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the December opening of a mega-facility in Dilley, Texas that will detain families seeking asylum. The facility will have up to 2,400 beds.  

Sending women and children fleeing for their lives into immigration detention flies in the face of American values and the country’s human rights commitments. Opposing their requests for release on bond, even when they merit release based on their individual situations, further perpetuates that shortcoming. 

The women and children who have been lucky enough to secure top quality pro bono representation have overwhelmingly been successful in establishing their eligibility for asylum. 

With executive action moving ahead, the administration has the opportunity to right its course on treatment of asylum seekers and address a number of long-standing problems in the asylum and immigration systems. 

These steps should include ending family detention, releasing mothers and children on bond, using case management and other appearance support mechanisms rather than detention for asylum seekers, halting the “rocket dockets” for children and families, and prioritizing full funding for immigration courts and asylum offices so that all cases—not just this summer’s—receive a hearing or interview without waiting years. Congress can and should prioritize full funding for the immigration courts.  It should also, consistent with American values, refuse to fund the detention of families and instead support effective and cost-efficient case management and appearance support programs. 

Furthermore, any steps to “secure the border” should strengthen and not weaken safeguards for identifying and protecting asylum seekers, those at risk of trafficking, and other vulnerable populations. 

If the president and Congress follow the course of action outlined above, they will be making a stand for American ideals and living up to our human rights commitments.  Let’s hope they seize the opportunity to adjust course.      

Acer is Human Rights First director of refugee protection.