Published in the Houston Chronicle by David Leopold (A version of this commentary first appeared on CNN.com)
The Obama administration rang in the New Year with a series of heavy-handed immigration raids aimed at ferreting out and deporting Central American families who entered the United States after fleeing rampant violence in their home countries. According to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the focus of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation is families ordered deported by an immigration judge either because their asylum claims were denied or they didn’t appear for their immigration court hearings. The raids have caused widespread shock, fear and panic among immigrant communities in Texas and elsewhere.
The raids operation is shocking, outrageous and just plain wrong. This is something we would expect from a President Trump, not President Obama.
The president is reacting – actually overreacting – to a recent spike in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied children to the United States. He apparently wants to deter others from making the arduous, life-threatening trip north to the United States and to show that his administration is adhering to its Nov. 14, 2014, immigration enforcement priorities that, in addition to criminals and national security threats, target noncitizens who entered the U.S. or were ordered deported after Jan. 1, 2014.
But it’s morally repugnant to send ICE agents into local communities to arrest and detain vulnerable families, including women and children, and deport them to places where their lives will be threatened by unspeakable violence – countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where gang and drug violence force innocent families to flee north to the United States in search of a haven.
We know that most are eligible for asylum or other forms of protection because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data show that an overwhelming percentage of the mothers and children in family detention centers in the United States can show a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries.
Other Central Americans ordered deported in absentia may not have had a fair chance to plead their asylum case because they did not get adequate information from government bureaucrats explaining their obligation to go to court. Clearly, being ordered deported under those circumstances is not due process.
And this is exactly what the CARA Project – which provides pro bono legal assistance to families held at ICE detention centers in South Texas – found among the cases of Central Americans arrested in these raids. After project lawyers filed emergency appeals, the Board of Immigration Appeals temporarily stopped the deportation of at least seven Central American immigrants so their cases could be reviewed. As CARA Director Katie Shepherd cogently put it, “This is a clear indication that something is very wrong.”
Nor can it be said that deporting those whose asylum cases have been denied after a hearing before an immigration judge is any more reasonable or appropriate. Central Americans fortunate enough to make their case in court with a lawyer are burdened with complicated and exacting legal standards that govern asylum law.
An immigration judge’s refusal to grant a person’s asylum claim hardly means he or she does not face serious, life-threatening harm in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. The bottom line is that for many Central Americans, deportation means the forcible return to a cauldron of life-threatening violence.
At a minimum, the continued ICE raids should be immediately and unequivocally stopped. Raids destroy families, ruin economies and erode the community trust essential to effective local law enforcement.
Fearing deportation, undocumented immigrants may hesitate to report serious crimes to local law enforcement. Immigration raids targeting families, including women and children, should be assigned to the dustbin of history.
Unfortunately, Obama appears to be doubling down. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the enforcement strategy will not change.
The president is making a colossal mistake by viewing this crisis solely through the lens of immigration enforcement. It’s much bigger than that – it’s a regional humanitarian crisis that demands a regional solution.
What’s needed now from Obama is leadership, not brutal enforcement policies targeting vulnerable families. Understanding the administration’s legitimate concern about preventing a new border surge, including its concern that those Central Americans who flee north to the United States face a life-threatening journey, Obama must do better than resort to ICE raids.
The president should work with regional partners toward a comprehensive regional solution aimed the root causes of the migration and devote resources to improving the economic and social situation in Central America. That solution includes regional safe havens, so Central American families fleeing violence can find shelter in the area rather than being forced to risk the treacherous journey north.
In the meantime, even if one accepts the administration’s argument that the Central American families targeted for deportation have received fair hearings – which I don’t – that still doesn’t explain why the administration is dispatching armed ICE agents into communities to arrest, detain and forcibly deport families. ICE has the power to allow people who’ve exhausted court proceedings to leave the country on their own. This heavy-handed approach tells me that the president is trying to send a broader message to Central American refugees – that they need not look to America for safety or shelter. That’s reprehensible, and something we’d expect from a President Trump, not President Obama.
Leopold, founder and principal of an immigration law firm in Cleveland that carries his name, is the past president of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.