Tens of thousands of children have fled Central America, seeking safe haven from gang warfare and violence in neighboring countries and in the United States. Unfortunately, the US response to those who have arrived at our borders has been less than welcoming, and children have been screamed at by Tea Partiers, locked away in icebox detention centers, and deported without due process — sometimes to their deaths. Today at the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun, two editorials make the case that the children deserve much better treatment, and need better access to a fair court system in order to properly tell their stories and be given a chance to live safely.
When the influx of young Central American migrants to the border erupted as a crisis this summer, President Obama correctly called it a humanitarian emergency. He promised that the administration’s response would combine compassion with respect for the law.
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.
The lawsuit claims that the administration has rigged the system so that vulnerable women and children who plead for asylum can’t get it. It says the immigrant detention center in Artesia is a middle-of-nowhere prison in the desert, 200 miles from the nearest big city, that short-circuits legal access and due process for the sake of swift and sure deportations. Its main purpose, the suit says, is to send a stern warning to would-be immigrants in Central America — to reinforce what the homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said when the crisis was at its peak: “We will send you back.”
The lawsuit spells out many reasons for alarm. In Artesia, detainees are cut off from the outside world, and subjected to a “highly truncated process” that denies them crucial information and assistance. Asylum officers and judges rush detainees into answering questions on things about which they may be confused or uninformed. Detainees lack access to phones; lawyers lack access to detainees. They are locked out of hearings and denied interviews. Mothers are required to explain the reasons they fear persecution — that is, describe abuses like death threats and sexual assaults — in front of their young children. Children are not screened individually to see if they may have their own claims to asylum.
For weeks after the center was opened, there were no protocols that even allowed lawyers inside, raising fears that people may have been deported without representation at all.
Written and video reports by lawyers who have visited the center are grim. The solutions are obvious: Mr. Obama needs to suspend all deportations until he can create a system that meets the basic standard of giving a fair hearing to every detainee who expresses a fear of persecution. He should allow the nearly 300 women and children who have already been deported to return and have their cases re-examined.
The urgency of “deterrence” messaging and damping a political crisis can’t supersede the Constitution and the requirements of asylum law.
Meanwhile, an editorial at the Baltimore Sun, “Death by deportation” demands better due process for Central American migrant children because some of them have been murdered following their deportation from the US:
At least five undocumented immigrants U.S. officials recently deported back to their homes in Honduras turned up dead at the morgue in San Pedro Sula, the Los Angeles Times reported. According to other news accounts, the victims ranged in age from 12 to 18, and all five had died of gunshot wounds. The director of the morgue speculated the killings were the work of criminal gangs in retribution for the children’s refusal to become members or pay protection money to the thugs who terrorized their neighborhood.
San Pedro Sula enjoys the dubious honor of being the most dangerous city in a country that has the highest per capita murder rate in the world. But the violence there can be found throughout Central America, a region that has endured decades of poverty, civil unrest and war. The violence is what is driving the flood of unaccompanied child migrants illegally crossing our border from Mexico, and it is the reality U.S. immigration authorities must take into account before deciding whether to send these young people home immediately or allow them to stay in this county until it is safe to return.
President Barack Obama recently issued an executive order allowing immigration authorities to fast-track deportation hearings for undocumented Central American children detained at the border. Under the president’s directive, such children must be brought before an immigration court judge within 21 days of their arrival for an initial hearing. The administration says it hopes the order will help reduce the huge backlog of cases that has piled up as a result of the record numbers of Central American child migrants entering the country this year.
But advocates for the migrants say the expedited review process also means that many of the children appearing in court won’t have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney or be represented by counsel during the legal proceedings that decide their fate. Some may not even be able to speak English, yet they are expected to be able to present the court with factual evidence sufficient to convince a judge that they are not economic refugees but are fleeing conditions in which their lives are in imminent danger.
That’s a fine distinction to make under the best of circumstances, and it’s no wonder children thrust into an unfamiliar and intimidating setting like a courtroom aren’t up to the task of pressing their case on their own. Advocacy groups like Casa de Maryland say that about 50 percent of the children who appear in immigration court represented by counsel ultimately are allowed to stay in the country if they have parents or relatives already living here. But for those without their own lawyers, fewer than 5 percent manage to avoid deportation — regardless of the threat of violence that awaits them at home.
Where’s the justice in a system that stacks the deck so completely against some children that it becomes little more than a fig leaf for sending them back to near certain death? We go to great lengths to ensure that everyone accused of a serious crime, including murderers, drug dealers, armed robbers and sex offenders, all have access to legal advice and representation when they appear in court. It’s unconscionable to deny the same legal protections to minor children who have fled conditions in their home countries that most Americans have difficulty even imagining.
The U.S. obviously can’t take in all the world’s threatened children just because they show up asking for asylum. But neither can the country ignore the fact that it is faced with a humanitarian crisis on our border that won’t be resolved simply by pretending it doesn’t exist. Fast-tracking deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors makes a mockery of the judicial process if those children aren’t provided with adequate legal representation. Gov. Martin O’Malley deserves commendation for seeking to mobilize Maryland’s legal community to represent these children, but the problem is much larger than Maryland. The Obama administration must do whatever is necessary to make sure that in deporting these children to appease the anti-immigrant sentiment it isn’t pronouncing the equivalent of a death sentence on those seeking our help.