Unaccompanied Minors from Central America: What is Happening on the Ground and Why This is Not a Border Security Crisis But a Crisis Demanding Humanitarian Relief

August 26th, 2014

For much of the summer, the immigration news has been dominated by the recent surge of some 60,000 unaccompanied minors and young children with their mothers fleeing the violence and lawlessness in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Central American humanitarian crisis has resulted in a national debate about how to treat this vulnerable population: send them back to their home countries or grant them humanitarian relief in the United States.  Below is a very brief overview of what the federal government’s response has been thus far, a depiction of conditions on the ground, and a historical perspective on the numbers.

Shortly after the crisis emerged, the Obama Administration marshaled the resources of the numerous federal agencies involved in the apprehension, processing, housing, and repatriation of unaccompanied minor children, and sought emergency funding from Congress. Unfortunately, the Senate and the House of Representatives could not agree before their August 4 recess, and will have to resume negotiations and deliberations when Congress returns after Labor Day. In the meantime, the immigration courts have been instructed to expedite the hearings these immigrants are afforded to determine if their fears are credible, if they are eligible for asylum status, or if they should be deported.

While many of the children have been reunited with other family members who already live in the United States or have been released to sponsors, many others are being detained in detention centers awaiting hearings. One such center is the federal detention center at Artesia, a tiny town in Southeastern New Mexico. Artesia has been thrown into the national spotlight because the federal training center located there was turned into a make-shift detention center for women and children fleeing violence in Central America.

In the wake of the crisis, the immigration bar mounted a massive pro bono effort to ensure that detainees are afforded due process. Teams of experienced immigration lawyers, many of whom are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, are volunteering their time and experience to help these mothers and children. The following dispatches from lawyers who have spent a week at Artesia sheds some light on the conditions in these detention centers:

“I spent last week at the Artesia ‘family detention’ center, a 4-hour drive from both Albuquerque and El Paso. We had a group of roughly ten volunteers (attorneys, translators, and administrative staff) trying to stop the rapid deportations and see that the women and their children get some modicum of due process. This was the first week there has been a full time volunteer attorney presence on site during the month it has been open. 

“The first impression you get . . . is that all the children are sick, with coughs at minimum. They are dehydrated and listless. They are cold — there were two mornings where the temperature was around 60, and there were no jackets or blankets, so mothers and kids walked around with towels wrapped around their shoulders for warmth. Nearly all of them have valid claims for asylum — the majority based on domestic violence or gang issues. An unfortunate number were already deported without the opportunity to even consult with an attorney. Some mothers are giving up and asking to be deported because their kids are so sick.” [Editor’s Note:  Individuals are giving up even though the conditions in their home countries are dire.  For example, five recent Honduran deportees were murdered by gangs upon their arrival in Honduras. NPR, 8/21/2014.]

One pro bono lawyer from Oregon describes her experience in Artesia in this way:

“The lack of justice, due process, and the gross infringement on basic human rights at Artesia is truly staggering. . . . We need to send our members here to see and experience what is happening firsthand, so that they can shed light on this very dark place. . . . These are the most vulnerable people in the world, and our government is using them to send the message that America’s southern border is closed. As advocates, we can’t sit by and allow this voice of hate to be the loudest.”

A third volunteer lawyer reports:

“Women and children detained at length, being refused a chance for a fair hearing and access to counsel, and ultimately being sent back to the danger from which they fled. That’s what we’re seeing at Artesia . . . .

It shouldn’t be like this. But this is what we’ve come to. We need to help these families, to offer them due process and humane conditions, and ultimately address the root cause of this crisis: the conditions in Central America and the smugglers and traffickers who are making money off the misery of others.”

 

The New York Times highlighted a recent lawsuit filed by the American Immigration Council and other groups challenging the governments policies denying a fair deportation process to mothers and children who have fled extreme violence, death threats, rape, and persecution in Central America and come to the United States seeking safety.

The August 26, 2014 editorial stated:

“But the treatment of hundreds of these migrants in a makeshift detention center in Artesia, N.M., is appalling evidence that this promise was empty, according a lawsuit filed Friday in Federal District Court by a coalition of civil-rights organizations.

The immigrant detention center was supposed to be a safe haven for mothers and young children as their cases go through court. Though the detainees, as unauthorized immigrants, have no legal right to lawyers, advocates and immigration lawyers have made strenuous efforts to provide representation. The migrants have fled countries racked by gang and drug violence, and many have credible claims to asylum.”

 

 

Comment » | Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration Policy Center, Immigration reform

Immigrants bring innovation and revenue, too

August 16th, 2014

America, the land of opportunity. Immigrants come because they see a chance to succeed. But, more often than not, US policy restricts their ability to excel.

In the 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) sought to rectify that by granting many undocumented immigrants legal status. Years later, we can see how much that helped. In 1990, soon after IRCA became a law, only 30% of 16-24 year old IRCA immigrants had high school diplomas. By 2006, that number increased to 58%. Giving legal status nearly doubled the number of educated immigrants, and, in turn, helped them live a better life.

But today, the focus is on money and innovation – especially within H-1B visa program. Each year, 65,000 well-educated foreign professionals are granted H-1B visas so that they can work, innovate and work together with Americans. Many of these professionals go on to contribute to patents, new inventions and much more.

In three states where immigration is a major issue, Arizona, California and Illinois, the average yearly wage of H-1B visa holders is well over $10,000 more than the median household income. But since we cap H-1B visas at 65,000, we’re limiting the success of the program drastically. Every year, the cap is reached within a matter of days, because the program is seen as a path to success in the US. In 2012, it took 71 days to reach the cap. In 2013, it only took 4 days to fill every spot. Well-educated people are very interested in coming to work in the United States, but arbitrary quotas are holding them back.

The lesson here might not be that obvious, but it doesn’t take much to see where American immigration laws need reform.  IRCA allowed more immigrants legal status and over the course of 26 years, similar groups of legal immigrants saw great success and prosperity as a result. And the very successful H-1B visa program has only brought more money, innovation and jobs to the US.

A quick look at the numbers shows how important immigrants are to economic development. In Arizona and Illinois, 1 in 5 business owners are foreign born. And in California, 1 in 3 businesses are owned by immigrants. In each of these states, immigrant-owned businesses account for well over 15% of the state’s net income.

So does limiting innovation and job creators make much sense? Even simple legal status makes the lives of immigrants better – and the lives of US citizens better, as well.

 

Comment » | Immigration Policy Center

Children without borders (and parents)

July 14th, 2014

While the great immigration debate rages on — and stalls any meaningful progress — there is one group that deserves immediate attention: the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the border — children who made the dangerous trek all alone to reunite with family, escape violence and simply live a better life.

Current policy dictates detention and deportation, continuing the long-standing tradition of skirting the root issue of undocumented immigration. While most minors are quickly screened to make sure they aren’t victims of trafficking, most are still simply detained and shipped back to their home country, effectively putting them back in the conditions they risked their life to escape.

Research suggests several reasons for many of the unaccompanied minors at the border: escalating violence and abject poverty at home, family reunification and sometimes human trafficking. While these conditions are not universal, the 700% jump in asylum applications in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Brazil speaks to the need for some sort of intervention — both here and abroad.

While our current answer is detain and deport children, talk of better solutions quickly gets mired in uninformed, politically-motivated immigration arguments. Moderate Republicans have only just started to take immigration seriously — when they realized the issue is key to successful elections. Even President Obama’s move from deporting young “Dreamers” is only a small step in the right direction among many steps in the wrong direction.

Obama has even noted that undocumented immigration is an “urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated Federal response…” but both the President and Congress continue to delegate the responsibility to local law enforcement while they bicker and fight amongst themselves. Allowing Dreamers to stay helps, but deporting parents of young citizens and separating other family members hurts much more than it helps.

Acknowledging the root issues behind youth immigration is the direction we should be heading. Instead of simply returning youth to poverty and violence, or keeping families separated, we should help them live safely and offer the opportunity to contribute to our economy – helping them create and maintain meaningful ties to the country legally.

Comment » | Immigration reform

Immigrants Bring Valuable Skills, Cultural Diversity To Our Armed Forces

June 16th, 2014

Immigrants show their commitment to the United States in a multitude of ways. In fact, their dedication to the US began with their decision to leave their home countries and put down roots in America. And many immigrants take their devotion to this great land a step further by becoming members of our Armed forces.

Each year, around 8,000 immigrants join the US military, bringing a wealth of racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural insights to their posts. And given the increasingly global agenda of our Armed Forces, these diverse attributes are more valuable than ever. Unfortunately, though, many of our political leaders seem to not hold immigrants’ service in high regard, as a whopping 30,000 of these honorable men and women have been deported since 1996 for crimes classified as “aggravated felonies” under immigration law. But Margaret Stock, an attorney and retired lieutenant colonel, explains that the charges immigrant veterans are deported under are neither, “aggravated” nor “felonious,” and that the law prevents fair rulings in many of these cases.

“An immigration judge is not permitted to consider the individual circumstances of anyone who has an ‘aggravated felony’ conviction,” Stock said. “It doesn’t matter how old, minor or non-violent the offense, or if the individual has long since been rehabilitated. Such a person’s fate is sealed: He or she must be detained and deported.”

While thousands of veterans have been unfairly deported, there are a few key pieces of legislation in the works that would prevent future deportations. Recently, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) proposed a bill known as the ENLIST Act, which would allow young, undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children to apply for citizenship after military service. The bill would be an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). And Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) proposed an amendment that would allow undocumented immigrants to attend military service academies.

The military benefits greatly from the service of immigrants who enlist. And now, it’s time for immigrants to benefit from their honorable service.

Comment » | Immigration reform

The Last Gasp of the Anti-Immigration Movement

May 20th, 2014

In the years following the catastrophic September 11 attacks, and again after the election of President Barack Obama, there have been times  when it was considered acceptable in some circles to openly — and virulently — speak out against immigration reform. Peppered throughout the conversation were racist sound bites and dangerous rhetoric that maligned hardworking immigrants, and misinformed a sizeable portion of the American population.

Fast-forward to 2014, and being hateful just isn’t that cool anymore. The nativist extremist movement, as it is called, is in the midst of a fundamental transformation, as the sheer number of these fiercely anti-immigrant groups plummeted between 2010 and 2011. Most of the surviving groups are part of a single, large coalition, the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition (FIRE). Bad press, organizational disarray and the co-optation of the movement’s concerns by state legislatures passing draconian legislation all forced the collapse of the smaller, more fragmented anti-immigrant groups.

But the falloff in anti-immigrant organizations doesn’t necessarily mean that their dangerous sentiments have completely gone away. Many of these groups found allies in the Tea Party and the Republican Party. And in many ways, their radical views went mainstream. But there is evidence that many of the politicians who once marched proudly with the anti-immigration movement are now dialing down their inflammatory rhetoric.

Late last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) rejected a Republican-led push for the DREAM Act and told Newsmax, “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Unlike King’s previous anti-immigrant statements to the press, this sentiment drew ire from both sides of the political aisle — forcing those who may share King’s outdated views to think twice before diving headfirst into the changing tides that are now largely in favor of immigration reform.

As America moves forward, how will the Republican Party deal with the changing views on immigration? Will it evolve, or will it attempt to revive outdated scare tactics? Only time will tell.

Comment » | Immigration reform

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