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ICE’s War on Refugees

The federal government's deportation raids are an inhumane response to a humanitarian crisis.

From the time that she fled from El Salvador and was picked up at the US border, Ana Silvia Orellana Urias wore an ankle monitor so the immigration police could track her between check-in dates. On January 2, when immigration agents surrounded her house and she awoke to them banging on the door, she was living just outside Atlanta with her four children. The agents said they’d only come because of her ankle monitor. She was confused — she’d just changed the batteries. When she tried to call her lawyer, an agent reportedly seized her phone.

Then they rounded up Urias and her children and sent them to a jail in south Texas, where she said an agent tried to make her sign a paper agreeing to be deported.

Hers is one of twenty-eight families the federal government arrested over New Year’s weekend, in a series of deportation raids intended to scare off other would-be asylum seekers from Central America. News of similar arrests has trickled in since, and the secretary of homeland security has pledged to keep them up indefinitely.

In reaction to the roundups, activists across the country have launched a social media campaign, “Know Your Rights” workshops, and street protests in at least ten cities. On the legal front, attorneys have set up a makeshift bureau in the Texas jail where deportees are being housed and halted the deportation of a dozen families. Other attorneys are investigating possible civil rights abuses during the raids.

Amid this pushback, 146 Democrats in the House and 22 in the Senate have signed letters to President Obama, urging him to halt arrests and let immigrants stay temporarily, and a group of Senate Democrats is pushing a bill that would guarantee legal representation to certain migrants. Some city governments, including those of Philadelphia and Durham, North Carolina, have also publicly repudiated the raids.

In short, grassroots pressure does seem to be yielding results. But, with Obama apparently unwilling to call off immigration agents, many migrant families are being needlessly forced to live in fear.

The targeted refugees are coming primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — countries ravaged by gang violence and civil wars the US has, over the decades, played no small part in fostering.

Virtually all of them are fleeing for reasons of safety. Mohammad Abdollahi, an advocate with the San Antonio-based Refugee and Migrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), says that of the four to five thousand cases the group has handled since July 2014, only about a dozen have involved migrants seeking better-paying jobs.

US officials declared in 2014, after the Border Patrol apprehended some 140,000 unaccompanied children, that they were facing a crisis. A crisis not of need, it seems, but of security. That year the US government opened three new migrant jails in Texas and New Mexico — all operated by the notorious private-prison contractor GEO Group — and expanded an existing facility in Pennsylvania.

A year later, a federal judge found the government was violating its legal obligations to child immigrants: namely, to treat them humanely (GEO wasn’t licensed for child care) and to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions. She ordered the authorities to empty the facilities.

Meanwhile, refugees just kept arriving; more than 21,000 were picked up in the last three months of 2015 alone. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) doubled down on its carceral response.

For instance, immigration agents began jailing for longer stretches single adults who presented themselves at the border. They’re now held for an average of two to six months while awaiting hearings. For some, it proves to be too much — every week, a RAICES client reported, five or six women sign papers to self-deport simply to get out from behind bars. “They’re coercing people to say, ‘You know what? I’d rather go back,’” said Victor Nieblas, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s a psychological battle.”

For many refugees, however, the hostility they endure from ICE pales in comparison to the dangers they face at home. When families are deported, Abdollahi said, they often start saving money immediately to make a return journey.

While families are usually processed faster, those sent to jails in remote towns like Artesia, New Mexico and Dilley, Texas often can’t access attorneys. At the Dilley jail, a population of some 2,400 detainees is served by just twelve legal rooms (even though lawyers are now staffing the facility full-time).

And last year, a Syracuse University report found that 73 percent of Central American mothers migrating to the US with children didn’t have legal representation in immigration court, while 98.5 percent of those without lawyers had their asylum claims rejected.

This lack of legal representation left migrants ill equipped to deal with President Obama’s next move.

In December, the Washington Post reported that ICE was preparing to round up and expel families who had arrived after January 2014. While the plan was to target those who had been denied asylum status, the raids reportedly could impact hundreds, if not more. “The adults and children would be detained wherever they can be found and immediately deported,” the Post wrote.

The raids came as promised with the start of the new year. In Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina 121 people from 28 families were detained.

What little details we know about the roundups come from an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In addition to Urias, numerous detainees said ICE officers tricked them, sometimes getting them to open their doors voluntarily so they wouldn’t need warrants.

Lesly Padilla Padilla, a twenty-six-year-old from Honduras, said ICE agents showed her a picture of an African-American man and claimed they’d been told he lived at her address. They insisted on searching the residence; when Padilla permitted them to enter, they took her away.

Another woman, Rosa Morales, who fled from Guatemala, said they blocked her brother on the road and threatened to arrest him unless he let them into Morales’s home. Once inside, they took her and her kids into custody.

While there have been no mass raids since January 2, in Charlotte and Durham, North Carolina, a few families have reported that ICE agents arrested their sons and daughters, sometimes on the way to school. Activists in New Jersey have also reported several raids. (ICE denies anyone was detained.) Pania Unzueta, an organizer in Chicago with the anti-deportation campaign #Not1More, said the sweeps have paralyzed immigrant communities with fear. Earlier this year, some families canceled ESL classes and kept their kids home from school.

Immigration attorneys have managed to secure stays of deportation for the twelve families with whom they’ve been able to connect, often on due-process grounds. Abdollahi recounted the case of one woman whose attorney had apparently manipulated her during an early hearing: she didn’t understand that she’d accepted voluntary deportation until the interpreter informed her.

But a more systemic problem, Abdollahi says, is that asylum law needs to be updated to correspond with the reality in Central America. In the federal court districts where cases are being tried, many judges don’t recognize the kinds of violence refugees are fleeing as satisfying the legal criteria for granting asylum status.

It’s not for lack of lawyerly effort. Shortly after the initial raids, a group of nonprofit attorneys rented a ranch near the jail in Dilley to stay in while they work on immigrants’ cases. Others began making day trips or checked in to a Days Inn nearby. While waiting on decisions from the Board of Immigration Appeals, they’ve also managed to get most of the families temporarily released, in keeping with established case law that prohibits migrants from being detained for more than twenty days.

For their part, immigrant rights organizations have deployed a two-pronged strategy involving both education and resistance. Activist groups, especially those affiliated with #Not1More, an anti-deportation campaign that grew out of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, have used social media to share resources, disseminate information, and schedule demonstrations.

Take the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), an organization founded in 2001 that houses eighteen community groups under its institutional umbrella. After the raids were announced in December, GLAHR held a press conference with #Not1More and used social media to distribute a Spanish-language video informing migrants of their rights. When the raids began, families used GLAHR’s hotline to report arrests, and the group then connected them with the SPLC. In the intervening weeks, GLAHR has also put on Know Your Rights workshops all over Georgia.

The resistance component began on December 30 — after the Post report but before any roundups — with a march in Washington, DC. In the weeks since, demonstrations have been held in smaller cities like Durham, North Carolina and Homeland, Florida, and larger metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The government’s response has been contradictory and convoluted. In mid-January, Secretary of State John Kerry was caught in a flagrant act of doublespeak when he pledged to make more room for Central Americans in the US’s refugee program, but didn’t even offer to stop the raids until the current asylum seekers could be properly evaluated.

Then later in the month, Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claimed no deportation raids had even occurred. (Pelosi’s muddled explanation: “They were individuals who had broken the law in other than ways — other than [legal] status — or were newcomers to the country.”)

At the very least, it appears the government has changed course, dialing back mass sweeps in the face of activist pressure. Earlier this month, a band of Senate Democrats, led by Harry Reid, also introduced a bill that would guarantee certain migrants — including kids and those with disabilities — access to government lawyers.

This would be a helpful step. But the most immediate priority is halting the deportation of Central American asylum seekers and closing recently opened migrant jails. Congress should investigate whether ICE abridged detainees’ rights during the raids. And local governments should rescind their cooperation with ICE, as Philadelphia has done.

In the long run, the federal government should increase the number of refugee slots allocated for migrants from Central America. Kerry promised a paltry nine thousand slots (an increase from the current three thousand). That figure should be in the tens of thousands.

In addition, the United States, for years an accomplice in the repression of popular movements in the region, must change its foreign policy posture. A more just Central America wouldn’t send people fleeing by the thousands.

Liberals have praised Obama for his deft use of executive actions to circumvent a hostile Congress. Yet it’s the president alone who must answer for this unilateral call. For those pushed from their homelands by unabating bloodshed, the Obama administration hasn’t offered safe haven, but targeted deportations intended to sow fear. He’s brought law-and-order tactics to a humanitarian crisis.

The raids must come to an end, and those detained must be released. A warm welcome is the only humane response.