In an unprecedented move, the Obama administration started off the new year arresting and deporting Central American women and children who came to the United States fleeing extreme violence in their home countries.
There is absolutely no reason to deport Central American women and children, often some of the most vulnerable people in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, back to these highly dangerous, gang-ridden countries, when our government can grant them Temporary Protected Status.
Temporary Protected Status allows the president to halt deportations to any country he designates for between 6 and 18 months. There are several situations in which he can do this, for example, when there is "an ongoing armed conflict within the [country] and, due to such conflict, requiring the return of aliens... would pose a serious threat to their personal safety." The president may also halt deportations when there are "extraordinary and temporary conditions... that prevent aliens... from returning... in safety".
Take the case of El Salvador. There is powerful evidence that deporting women and children back to El Salvador poses a serious threat to their personal safety due to the active and deadly armed conflict between the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 drug gangs. According to the World Bank, El Salvador currently has the highest murder rate in the world at 104 people per 100,000 (compare this to 5 people per 100,000 in the U.S.) This is the highest murder rate for any country in nearly 20 years, tops the murder rate in El Salvador during its civil war in 1980-1992, and is a 70 percent increase from 2014 when a truce between the two main rival drug gangs broke down. And these high homicide numbers do not include all known intentional killings nor people who have been forcibly disappeared.
Furthermore, these numbers are likely under-reported, as people often fear to report crime to the police due to corrupt dealings between the police and the gangs and fear that if the gangs get wind of a witness denouncing them the witness will face brutal retaliation. According to the U.S. Department of State "gang members are quick to engage in violence or use deadly force if resisted."
In my work with women and children seeking refuge in the U.S. I have heard many stories of how there is little faith in the police, how in their communities the gang is the de facto governing authority. The women have explained how the gang maintains tight control, monitoring who in their territory, and how they often cannot travel to territory controlled by a rival gang without risking their lives.
Gang control is pervasive. According to the U.S. Department of State “gangs continued to exercise influence within the prisons and judicial system… [a] majority of serious crimes are never solved." The U.S. Department of State further reports that El Salvador is unable to “properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime." This culture of impunity gives the green light to gangs to continue committing acts of violence against the public.
Women and children in El Salvador are also victims of many other forms of violence that may not result in death or disappearance, such as forced servitude and rape. I have spoken with several women who were sought out by gang members to be their "girlfriends" by force. And there are many young boys, sometimes as young as 10 years old, who are forcibly recruited to sell drugs and extort money from the community. Between a life of forced servitude and abuse or death, it is no wonder many women and children choose to flee.
Unfortunately, there are few, if any, safe places in the country. El Salvador is small, about the size of New Jersey. On January 11, 2016, recognizing the dangerous situation in El Salvador, the U.S. Peace Corps suspended its program after 22 years of operation. If the country is too dangerous for Peace Corps volunteers, how can we in good conscience send women and children there?
In fact, on January 7, 2015 the president determined that we could not deport El Salvadorans who currently have Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. – those who arrived before March 9, 2001 – because the country "cannot adequately handle their return." If the El Salvadoran government cannot handle the return of this group of people, how is it better able to handle the return of more vulnerable women and children?
Without evidence that these women and children can safely return, and with much evidence showing that it is not safe, we should not be sending them back. Rather, we should be granting them Temporary Protected Status.
It is time to move past piecemeal policies and instead protect the women and children who have come to our country searching for safety and peace.
Ramey is a staff attorney with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio, Texas.