President Obama has pledged to protect refugees worldwide, yet within our own borders immigration authorities are rounding up and locking up Central American refugees as if they are criminals. Despite our laws and international treaties, the federal government continues to ignore the undeniable truth that the families and children fleeing the violence in Central America are refugees.  For several years El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been taken over by uncontrollable levels of murder, rape, domestic abuse, and gang-related violence—violence that would serve as the basis for legal protection under U.S. asylum and refugee law.  Instead of protecting these refugees, the Obama Administration has targeted this extremely vulnerable population with the harshest of enforcement tactics.

This week, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, along with more than 150 other faith-based and community organizations sent a public letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging them to end the unnecessary and inhumane treatment of refugee families and children seeking protection from extreme and unmitigated violence in these three countries, a region known as the Northern Triangle. 

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Communities across the country are terrified because immigration authorities have begun aggressively rounding up families and unaccompanied children. The government promises that these arrests would target only those people with final orders of removal who received a fair day in court and have no more legal avenues left to seek protection.

Those assurances have been proven false.  Over the past few weeks, the CARA Family Detention Project has provided legal representation to more than 40 individuals picked up and taken to family detention facilities in Texas. Their cases show that ICE has arrested families who have not been afforded the fundamental due process guaranteed by our laws.

In this latest round of raids, one mother was wrongfully arrested before her court hearing even took place—there is no way she had a “fair day in court.” Others who were arrested never even received notice of their court hearings. In more than half of all of the cases the CARA Project has identified, the arrested families had no legal counsel. Yet government statistics show families with counsel are 10 times more likely than unrepresented families to win relief from removal.

Wrongful deportation of children and their mothers is not a trifling thing. Sending them back to life-threatening danger is absolutely contrary to our country’s values. The U.S. government must make every effort to ensure they have a meaningful chance to present their claims for protection.

Instead, the government has stacked the deck against these families. All but two were arrested in four states where the local immigration courts have abysmally low asylum grant rates, far below the national 2015 average of 48 percent.  And far too many of these families have no legal assistance and are left to fend for themselves in an incredibly complex area of the law where the outcome is often a matter of life or death.  It’s true that not every recent entrant from the Northern Triangle qualifies for the high legal standard under U.S. asylum and immigration law. But every mother and child deserves a chance to make their claim.

What needs to be done? Stop arresting Central American families and children using these harsh enforcement tactics. Stop incarcerating families seeking refuge in private prisons at taxpayer expense. Give people due process, including the assistance of competent legal counsel, a fair hearing before an immigration judge, and an opportunity to appeal if appropriate. Our country cannot risk sending a single mother back to the gang that raped her or terrorized her family.  Our country must protect every refugee who comes to our borders.   


Benjamin Johnson is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.