This article appears as part of the People's World's ongoing coverage of the crisis of U.S. detention and deportation of immigrants. See also this article of March 7, 2016 by Emile Schepers.
SAN ANTONIO, TX. -- Yanira Lopez Lucas and her children count themselves among the very fortunate. They are among the tens of thousands of refugees from Central America who have made the dangerous journey across the US border since 2014 to escape violence and turmoil in their home countries.
Because of "gang violence, drug trafficking, and similar issues that other mothers go through, we decided to come to this place," Lopez told the People's World at a shelter for Central American refugees.
Lopez and her children left Guatemala in January 2015 and journeyed through Mexico by bus and trailer, staying in the homes of kind strangers along the way. A month later they presented themselves to U.S. border authorities asking for political asylum.
They crossed into the U.S. through the port of entry at Brownsville, TX. "From the border they sent us to the 'dog pound', said Lopez, referring to a holding facility near the border crossing processing center. As in a dog kennel, each person is detained in a three-by-three foot area enclosed by a chained link fence.
From there, the family was sent to Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, one of the private, for-profit run Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers). "They released us in April and we've been (in San Antonio) since," Lopez said. (story continues after video)
Lopez and her family are among tens of thousands fleeing the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras along with parts of Mexico, including nearly 100,000 unaccompanied minors. They are not leaving in search of jobs, but to escape poverty and violence, and to save their lives.
Crisis of violence
Warring drug cartels and criminal gangs are terrorizing the region, as they have in large parts of Mexico, creating extreme violence, chaos and destabilizing governments. In Mexico, murders topped 164,000 between 2007-2014, enough to create a statistically significant drop in male life expectancy. (By contrast, 103,000 people died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period.)
In 2014, President Obama declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. However, the crisis has been overshadowed in the press by the refugees overwhelming Europe with hundreds of thousands fleeing war and brutal violence in Syria, Iraq and Northern Africa.
In its report "Women on the Run", The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates over 66,000 unaccompanied minors traveled to US in 2014. And another 66,000 women with children came during the same period. Fewer than 10,000 had done so in 2008.
The flow of Central American refugees slowed after the Obama administration took steps to stop it. But it spiked again in October and November 2015, when 10,000 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.- Mexican border.
And refugees are not just headed to the U.S. Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Belize experienced a 1200% spike in asylum cases between 2008 and 2014.
U.S. helped destabilize the region
Much of the destabilization in the Northern Triangle countries is rooted in decades of U.S. intervention, coups, militarization and funding of right wing movements and death squads.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration illegally directed millions of dollars that resulted in civil wars, military dictatorships, mass killings of indigenous peoples and deepening poverty.
The Clinton presidency then made the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a major featured policy. Now, twenty years after its signing, it is clear that one consequence of NAFTA was turning Mexico into a warzone. Transportation routes for agricultural and manufacturing products doubled as transportation for drugs. Competition between drug cartels over transportation of cocaine originating in Columbia erupted into violence.
The Bush administration signed a "security cooperation agreement" with the Mexican government headed by President Felipe Calderon called the Merida Initiative. In 2006, Calderon launched a war on the cartels.
Ramped up by the Obama administration, the policy has resulted in the militarization of the region, heavily arming security forces that only decades earlier were involved in widespread human rights abuses.
The policy has been a failure. The share of drug trafficking through Mexico has risen dramatically. And U.S.-led interdiction has routed drug trafficking through Central American countries, spreading the violence.
The immediate crisis of violence facing the Northern Triangle countries has led to an epidemic of women and girls being raped, abused, and forced into prostitution. Boys are being forcibly recruited into gangs or killed. Women and children are being abducted and murdered for ransom payments.
Local authorities offer little or no protection. In many places poorly-paid police and judges have been corrupted by the gangs and cartels. Corruption extends into the highest reaches of government, prompting recent mass protests.
The Northern Triangle countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2014 the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras reported a homicide rate of 187 per 100,000 people.
At the national level, El Salvador leads all countries in homicides, with a rate of 104 per 100,000 population. By comparison, the U.S. had 4.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2014.
El Salvador's rate is on par with the West Garfield neighborhood in Chicago which reported 116 per 100,000 in 2014. Some of the same factors of extreme poverty and fighting over the drug trade are at play. This is no accident: Chicago criminal street gangs are linked with the drug trafficking emanating from Mexico.
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of female homicides globally.
The journey to the US border is a harrowing one for refugees. They are constantly in danger of being detained by Mexican authorities and deported home. They often wait weeks at shelters in Mexico that have become refugee camps.
They contend with high fees of smugglers, extortion, bribes to authorities, physical and sexual abuse.
Some have been enslaved by criminal gangs to work the marijuana fields.
Refugees who can't afford a "coyote" ride northern bound freight trains through Mexico nicknamed "La Bestia" because of the nightmarish journey. They are often subject to physical abuse and rape, bribes and robbery. Many ride on the top of the trains only to be swept off, resulting in death or severe injuries.
Deporting vulnerable refugees
U.S. immigration policy has changed substantially since the 1990s when deportation became the policy remedy for undocumented immigration.
For more information on the Obama administration's current policy and how it is and is not being carried out by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, read this overview by People's World's Emile Schepers.
Once inside the U.S., the refugees can spend months incarcerated in ICE family detention facilities like Karnes, with 1158 beds and the Dilley Residential Center with 2400 beds. Both are located south of San Antonio.
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services (RAICES), a refugee advocacy group founded during the civil wars in Central America during the 1980s, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) both describe these facilities as internment camps.
Like all other immigrant detention facilities, the family detention centers are run by private, for-profit prison companies. Dilley is run by Correction Corporation of America (CCA) and Karnes by GEO Group.
"Locking up refugee families and children continues to be a revenue generating tactic for both CCA and GEO Group," says Cristina Parker, Immigration Programs Director at Grassroots Leadership. "While the rest of the country was shocked and concerned by the humanitarian crisis at the border this summer, CCA and GEO were giddy."
Private, for-profit prison companies helped craft privatization legislation and lobbied for its passage. Approximately 441,000 immigrants are detained each year.
The detention facilities have been condemned for permitting horrendous conditions that have led to suicide attempts, negligent medical care, malnutrition and sexual abuse.
"It's not very often they have anything good to eat. When they do, they won't let us have seconds even though large amounts are left over. They tell us to wait until the next meal," said Lopez.
There are also report times at 7 am, 4 pm and 8 pm. The hardest is in the morning when children are sleeping. Often times they are sick because the facilities are very cold, according to Lopez.
"Mothers would take their children's IDs for the check in but the guard would ask 'where is your child?'," recounted Lopez. "And we would say, 'they are sick.' They would say, 'you have to get your child.' We would say, 'but they are sick.' And the guard would say 'without your child we can't check them in.'"
Lopez said the private prison companies are supposed to provide basic hygiene products but refugees rarely see them.
The Obama administration and DHS policy has been to deter the flow of refugees from their home countries. The administration is paying the Mexican government to block refugees at its southern border. Over 20,000 raids were conducted by Mexican authorities in 2015 in shelters, and on buses and trains used by the refugees.
In addition, the Administration is making it known that once in the US, refugees face the prospect of detention and almost certain deportation.
A State Department program instituted in December 2014 allowing children to apply for asylum before leaving their home countries and avoiding the dangerous journey. However, of nearly 6,000 applicants, only 16 children were admitted.
Detention policy violates federal law
In July 2015 Federal District Judge Dolly Gee found mothers and their children in detention facilities were being held in "deplorable conditions" and their detention violated longstanding federal law. She ordered their speedy release.
The administration is still deporting those who are here even if it means that their lives will be endangered by returning home.
Most refugees have no access to legal services even though 90% of those interviewed have met the legal standard for asylum by having "credible fear" of returning. Most should qualify for asylum or protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
"These people are experiencing extreme trauma. They are so fearful they often can't describe the things they have been through back home, the stories of rape and violence," said Amy Fischer, Policy Director for RAICES.
On January 2, ICE conducted raids that swept up 121 Central American mothers and children for deportation. The raids prompted outrage from Democratic Party elected officials, immigration, civil liberties, religious and labor leaders.
On Jan. 13 Secretary of State John Kerry announced the US would expand the numbers of refugees from Central America although with restrictions.
The raids were conducted without warrants and refugee women were denied legal services. The administration claimed they had exhausted their legal options.
"That's just not true," says Fischer. "They [meaning ICE] are targeting unaccompanied minors now. They are being taken to adult detention centers."
According to Fischer the Obama administration has abandoned due process and families have been deported without being able to appeal.
"We were able to halt 12 of the 12 cases we took up. Eight have been released. This contradicts DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson's statement that they had exhausted appeals," said Fischer.
Between June 2014 and May 2015, over 7,000 family units were processed, according to Fischer. The majority have been released to join family members already here.
Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director at RAICES, said most resources now go to defending the rights of refugees in detention facilities. Immigrant advocacy organizations are overwhelmed with a backlog of deportation cases. That leaves few resources available for families with solid cases for asylum to have their day in court.
"We see this as a very intentional move by the Obama administration. They are creating the right set of situations so more people will be ordered deported, and they can say, 'see, they don't have asylum cases," said Abdollahi.
Candidates weigh in
The crisis has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton told Univision's Jorge Ramos she would fight for due process for all refugees but couldn't guarantee she would stop all the deportations.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for an end to the deportations back to home countries, for protective status and providing jobs in the U.S. for refugees.
All the Republican candidates continue to criminalize the refugees and call for their deportation.
According to many refugee advocacy groups the policy of detention and deportation is bound to fail because it doesn't change the conditions the people of Central America are desperately seeking to escape.
Abdollahi said the only solution was for the Obama administration to reinstate temporary protective status for those fleeing the Northern Triangle countries.
"They know this is the only solution. No amount of detention will stop migration because it's forced migration," he said.
Photo (video snapshot) and video: Benny Espinoza/PW