Seeking refuge in the U.S.

by Tammy Alexander

From 2011 to 2014, the number of migrants from Central America seeking refuge in the U.S. rose sharply each year, reaching more than 130,000 in 2014. Most of the migrants–primarily women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras–applied for asylum in the U.S., a legal process by which a person from one country can apply to stay in a second country if that person fears certain types of persecution or violence.

Rachel Díaz, a consulting attorney for MCC East Coast’s immigration program, meets with a client at the MCC office near Miami. Díaz’s work seeks to keep families together.
Rachel Díaz, a consulting attorney for MCC East Coast’s immigration program, meets with a client at the MCC office near Miami. Díaz’s work seeks to keep families together.

In previous years, people seeking asylum could stay with relatives in the U.S. while awaiting a court hearing. As the number of refugees–and the political pressure and media misinformation–increased in 2014, however, the Obama administration began placing thousands of these vulnerable women and children in newly-opened family detention centers.

The administration also moved to speed up deportations, circumventing due process in many cases. They pressed the Mexican government to step up border security and they waged a condescending public relations campaign to tell parents it was dangerous to send their children through Mexico to the U.S.

U.S. officials have repeatedly referred to this group of immigrants as “illegal” even though they are following the internationally-recognized process for requesting asylum in another country–crossing the border and immediately turning themselves over to Border Patrol and requesting protection.

In January, the Obama administration started conducting raids to deport asylum seekers who had not been granted asylum. Lack of access to legal help is depriving many of a chance to sufficiently argue their case in court. One U.S. immigration judge recently argued this was not a problem, saying 3-year-old children could represent themselves in court.

The actions from the Obama administration show a lack of political will to address the reasons why people are migrating and an unwillingness to uphold U.S. obligations under international law to protect those seeking asylum. Some are predicting a rise in the number of Central American migrants again this summer. A humane response would shift away from family detention and raids and instead ensure those seeking asylum have a fair day in court.