Uncovering America's Raids on Central American Immigrants
Across America, a wave of terrifying raids has swept through residential neighborhoods and wreaked emotional and mental havoc on families. The mass raids are a joint effort by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), offices of the United States government. News broke of the planned raids on December 23rd, and immediately sparking outrage from immigration activists and foreign diplomats alike. It was especially shocking, given the current political climate–the Syrian refugee crisis, and the inhumane and Islamophobic responses that politicians and world leaders had to distraught families fleeing the war zone.
Like the refugees in Syria, the Central American immigrant families being targeted by the ICE and DHS have also fled their countries because of extreme violence—but that doesn’t seem to matter. These families overcame insurmountable odds in their fight to make it to safety in the United States, and now, all of that may have been for nothing. For their part, the DHS has been surprisingly transparent about their renewed efforts to enforce immigration policies, and to clear out the remaining families who have entered the country illegally.
“This past weekend, the ICE engaged in concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children,” DHS official Jeh Johnson said in a prepared statement Sunday morning. “This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
With this memorandum, the DHS and ICE have confirmed what so many families began to fear two days before Christmas: federal officials were coming to take them back to the countries they had fled. With the raids ongoing and thousands of families in crisis, here’s what you need to know about the immigration raids.
What’s Happening in Central America?
Three countries are at the heart of the ongoing immigration crisis and subsequent crackdown that led to a series of raids over the weekend: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. An epidemic of gang and drug violence over the past several years has led to targeted killings of journalists and advocates for human and land rights. For Hondurans particularly, their situation has become so dire that even the American government had to respond. A 2014 report by 100 members of the House of Representatives outlined the deteriorating human rights situation in Honduras, urging action to ensure the safety of citizens there. More recently, El Salvador was given the distinct honor of being named the world’s new murder capital.
With such overwhelming violence, it should come as no surprise that children have fled in huge numbers. It’s also important to note that this is no easy journey. For girls especially, sexual abuse is common when traveling through Mexico. Yet thousands upon thousands have made the journey, because it’s less dangerous than staying where they live. With these facts in mind, the thought of ripping children out of their homes and forcing them to return starts to sound pretty inhumane—and there’s already evidence of children dying after being deported back home. With this background on the situation established, it’s important to look at who these raids are targeting.
Who’s Being Targeted?
According to plans made by the Obama administration in collaboration with the ICE and DHS, raids are targeting Central Americans who illegally immigrated into the country after May 1, 2014, when the border crisis quickly lost control. It was during the pivotal period between October 2013 and September 2014 that 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the US/Mexico border. To put that into perspective, this was a 77 percent increase over the previous year. This would’ve been enough of a logistical nightmare for border security if it were just children, but during this same period 68,445 family units also crossed over the border. The influx overwhelmed all systems the United States had in place, and led to overcrowded immigration facilities and massive amounts of children being relocated to military bases. After widespread crackdowns, the flow of illegal immigrants fleeing their countries eased off before rising again in spring 2015.
As federal agents processes the tens of thousands of immigrants passing through the border, many families were released from detention centers based largely on the fact that there wasn’t room for them anymore. Since then, these Central American families have spread across the country and begun to try setting up lives for themselves away from the horrors of their homelands.
Stories have been pouring into news outlets since the raids began over the weekend. Families woke up to immigration agents banging on their doors, catching them when they left their homes to run errands, or simply tricking them into opening their doors. Remember the heartbreaking story of the eight-year-old Muslim child who packed her bags because she was terrified Donald Trump was going to kick her family out of the country? These raids are inspiring a whole new level of fear for immigrant children.
Why These Raids Matter
The raids are striking, because they’re the first of their kind to target minors. These new sweeps are focused exclusively on adults and their children (no matter what their age) who were apprehended after May 1, 2014, after crossing the southern border illegally, were issued orders of removal by an immigration court, and have exhausted “appropriate legal remedies,” according to Johnson. As of Monday, the DOJ had confirmed that 121 people were taken into custody mostly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.
There’s no word on how long the raids will go on, but, according to U.S. Border Patrol, more than 100,000 people who were part of family units entered the United States illegally through the southwestern border since 2014. Of that huge number, more than 41,000 applied for asylum requests in 2014, yet only 8,775 were approved. That means there are potentially thousands of raids that will be conducted in the foreseeable future. Families do have the option of hiring lawyers to fight their cases, as a last-ditch effort to stay in the United States, but that would require money to hire a lawyer—a caveat that disqualifies a lot of immigrants who fled their countries with meager resources and possessions. This fact doesn’t seem to sway the conscience of Johnson, who made this statement after the weekend raids:
“This should come as no surprise,” he said. “As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.”
Measuring the Response
With the dark rumor turning to brutal truth, responses and condemnations have begun to pour in from around country. In one of the most surprising signs of the gravity of the issue, diplomats from Guatemala and El Salvador took to social media over the weekend to issue warning to keep their doors closed and not allow in agents seeking to deport them unless they have court orders.
One of the most biting statements from advocacy groups came from Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice who called the action “repugnant,” “outrageous,” and “something we would expect from a President Trump,” which is the biggest insult you can throw at someone right now. If you were wondering, Trump did release a statement on the raids way back on Christmas Eve by claiming credit for the idea and stating that “it’s about time” action was taken.
On the Democratic side, a number of politicians in Congress—including Bernie Sanders—have released statements condemning the Obama administration. Sanders actually released a letter Thursday that he sent to the White House demanding an end to the raids.
“I urge you to immediately end these raids and not deport families back to countries where a death sentence awaits,” he wrote. “We cannot continue to employ inhumane tactics involving rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of immigrant families to address a crisis that requires compassion.”
As immigration advocates, politicians, and government officials scramble to protect the Central American families, we’re left wondering what will come next. We can only hope that as pressure increases, President Obama will show the same compassion to these families as he did to shooting victims, and call on the ICE and DHS to end these inhumane raids.
Images via Scott Olson, Evelio Contreras, US Customs and Border Protection, Irfan Khan, Getty, Olivier Douliery, and EPA.