Activists denounce new wave of deportations of Central American refugees

Two days before Christmas, the Washington Post reported a leaked government plan to deport Central American minors and families who entered the United States during last year’s “child migrant surge” (which also involved many family groups), and have been ordered deported because they could not get an immigration court to give them asylum.

According to the article, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has been pushing for these enforcement actions because there has been another sharp new spike in the number of families coming across the border without papers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and because of a federal court ruling that limits the time that DHS can hold migrant families in detention facilities that have been the focus of complaints about substandard conditions.

The news revealed by the Washington Post article, followed by confirmation from Secretary Johnson, has sent the nationwide immigrants’ rights movement into a new emergency mode, as information goes out to such families to warn them of possible raids on their homes and advise them of their options. A number of organizations have taken to the media to denounce the roundup and to distribute English and Spanish materials advising migrant families what to do if an immigration agent shows up at their home.

Casa de Maryland, which works to defend immigrants’ rights in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, distributes information which advises people not to open their doors to an immigration agent who does not present a warrant, and not to speak to such agents without a lawyer present.

In the first weekend in January, there were already reports, specifically from Atlanta, Ga., Texas and elsewhere, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arriving at families’ homes at the crack of dawn and arresting members of their households.

This news brought whoops of joy from Republican presidential candidate and anti-immigrant bloviator Donald Trump, who claims the government is only doing this in response to his agitation.

On the other hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said, “I am very disturbed by reports that the government may commence raids to deport families who have fled here to escape violence in Central America…. We who are parents should ask ourselves what we would do if our children faced the danger these children do? How far would we go to protect them?” (Mr. Sanders, who strongly opposed U.S. aid to the far right in Nicaragua during the “Contra Wars,” has had firsthand experience visiting the Central American region and listening to the stories of oppression that its inhabitants tell.)

Sanders was joined in condemning the plan by fellow presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, who said via Twitter: “A Christmas refugee roundup sounds like something Donald Trump would concoct. Remember, Jesus Christ was a refugee child who fled death gangs.”

Hillary Clinton, who had previously said it would be necessary to deport some of the children, also expressed worry about the latest reports.

Many unanswered questions

It is as yet hard to tell what the scope of the raids will be or the number of adults and children targeted for arrest and deportation. So far reports suggest that arrests in the hundreds or thousands are afoot. The claim that the new wave involves only people who had already been ordered deported, after failing to qualify refugee status, suggests a limited operation. But immigrants’ rights organizations have been complaining since the 2014 surge of child migrants and before, that there are major defects, from a due process and humanitarian point of view, in the way that the U.S. government handles these cases. There are many reports of children having to appear in court alone, without an attorney, and with understandable confusion about how the legal system works.

Moreover there is disagreement between immigration officials and immigrants’ rights activists about the types of situation which entitle a person to asylum in the United States. Some hardliners take the attitude that persons, even minor children, who are fleeing violent crime environments, as opposed to political, ethnic or religious persecution, should not be eligible for asylum or considered to be genuine refugees. People currently fleeing to the U.S. tell horrific stories about being preyed on by drug cartels or other criminal groups, or corrupt elements in the security forces. It is quite clear that the choice for such people is to flee or be killed. Yet to some, these are not “real refugees.” Likewise, starvation conditions in the home country are not considered a legitimate reason to be granted asylum.

Most of all, there is a failure on the part of the U.S. political leadership to recognize the degree to which the current wave of migration from Central America is the product of the activities of U.S. government and private corporate actors, today and in the past.

The United States, for more than a century, supported one repressive right-wing government in Central America after another, frequently conniving in the overthrow of governments that were not deemed sufficiently friendly to U.S. corporate interests. Guatemala and Honduras are two countries where this dynamic is still predominant. The contemporary institutions of the Guatemalan government are the product of a history set in motion by the overthrow of the progressive, democratic and legally elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz by the CIA in 1954. The social conflicts that followed cost the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, the principal victims including indigenous Mayas, labor union and student activists, and members of the left. The main beneficiaries have been wealthy landowners and business people, corrupt military officers and politicians, and transnational corporations, many based in the U.S. and Canada.

The murder rate in Guatemala is sky high, and there is almost total impunity, especially for the killing of women.

The situation in Honduras is similar. In June of 2009, the left-leaning, democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the military, and the U.S. State Department connived to thwart efforts to restore him to power, resulting in two utterly corrupt and very violent presidential administrations that have continued to receive U.S. support. Criminal violence by drug traffickers and gangs has given the country the highest murder rate in the world. In addition, Garifuna people (of mixed indigenous and African origin) are being pushed off their land on the Atlantic coast to make room for various corporate money-making operations, and journalists, unionists, student, women’s and GLBT activists are targeted for murder.

The situation in El Salvador is different in that it currently has a left-wing government which is at least making some effort to improve the living standards of the people. But the presence of thousands of members of violent gangs, called “maras,” whose origins are in the slums of U.S. cities, has created an extreme security problem in that country too.

The corporate fingerprint

In the whole area, activities of foreign mining and dam-building operations, often involving Canadian and U.S. capital, have driven farming communities off their agricultural land and created clashes in which people are attacked and killed. In Honduras, possibly scores of rural people have been murdered for opposing the encroachment of big agribusiness cultivators of African palms on their farmland.

And on top of all this the area is currently impacted by a severe drought related to an unusually strong “El Niño” weather pattern – which in turn may be related to global warming. In Guatemala alone, this has left at least a million people without food.

The fingerprints of U.S. state and non-state actors are all over these situations which give rise to current mass immigration patterns. Yet so far the U.S. has tried to solve the “problem”  of the migrants by keeping them out or throwing them out, and by providing area governments with “aid,” under the rubric of the “Alliance for Prosperity,” that will increase exploitative foreign corporate interventions and also repressive mechanisms of already repressive states.

The U.S. government has also exacerbated the situation by enlisting the corrupt and repressive government of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to help stop and round up Central American border crossers. This has led to more abuses and violence against migrants, but has not stopped them from fleeing the intolerable conditions in their countries of origin.

We must demand that our government change its fundamental policies, recognize these migrant families and children as refugees, and accept responsibility for the conditions of poverty and violence that force them to migrate. Immigration raids must stop, undocumented immigrants must be legalized, and our country’s relationship with its neighbors to the South must be reset on the basis of justice and equality.

People of conscience should immediately contact the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the White House and your Congressional representatives and senators to demand that these raids be stopped.

Finally, a petition asking for the raids and deportations to be ceased is circulating, which you can sign onto here.

Photo: Family of Central American refugees.   |   Teaching for Change


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.