Commentary: Central Americans Fleeing Violence Need Sanctuary Not Deportation

wfj-graphic.jpgChildren, families, women and men are fleeing violence, gang conscription, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). Gang violence continues to exponentially increase, targeting children and young people for extortion, forced conscription, and sexual assault. Escalating violence has created an environment of forced migration, pushing children and families to flee to safety. This year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have apprehended more than 54,000 unaccompanied children at the U.S. border. CBP apprehended a record 5,804 unaccompanied children and 9,359 members of family units in August alone. 

The United States has moral and legal obligations under international and U.S. law to ensure that individuals seeking protection are not returned to their traffickers and others who seek to exploit them. The intended deterrence plan of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deport Central Americans back to potential fatal conditions violates these obligations and does not address the root causes of the vulnerable populations seeking safety. Detention, deportation, and deterrence are not sound policy solutions to addressing this humanitarian crisis and will never succeed in scaring off those forced by violence to flee for their lives.

Many United Church of Christ congregations have stepped up to provide services to these Central American families. First Congregational in River Falls, Wisconsin and Congregational UCC in Greensboro have been accompanying Central American families as they struggle to find legal services or housing. Yuma UCC has assisted thousands of asylum-seeking families with access to housing, clothing, food, phone service, and bus tickets to reunify with their families.

Still, few viable policy solutions exist. The Central American aid package of 750 million dollars as part of the “Alliance for Prosperity” provided by the U.S. government has only exacerbated the crisis. Just as with “Plan Merida” in Mexico, the plan has increased the militarization of the police without addressing the root causes of drug violence related to systemic economic disenfranchisement. Instead of going to those who need it most, the money benefits transnational corporations and a small group of elites who already control the economy.

Worsening the impact of these policies are the neoliberal trade agreements the U.S. has negotiated, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which has pushed millions of Central American farmers who are unable to compete with the U.S. agro-industry’s $20 billion in annual farm subsidies off their farms.

The “Alliance for Prosperity” has also increased both border militarization at the southern Mexican border and immigration enforcement inside Mexico, in order to deport Central American migrants without effective or meaningful screening for credible claims of asylum. As a result, the U.S. government funded efforts that violate universal human rights standards and deport people back to persecution and violence.

The Obama Administration continues to ignore the root causes of migration and instead escalates an ineffective and inhumane strategy of deterrence through deportations, often times detaining children on their way to or from school. However, the Administration has made some progress by expanding in-country refugee processing in the Northern Triangle and expanding the categories of eligible applicants under the Central American Minors (CAM) program. The U.S. government has received more than 9,500 applications for the CAM program already. This is a huge step forward, but it is clear that the numbers are not sufficient to meet the great need. 

The United States is a global leader in refugee protection and resettlement. But we have fallen short in the face of today’s global refugee crisis. Last week, the Administration joined 193 member states within the U.N. General Assembly to respond to the world’s 65.3 million displaced people. The U.S. has played a significant role in crafting the U.N. efforts to increase assistance to refugees at a global level. Yet, in the western hemisphere, President Obama’s policies continue to be a human rights blunder.  

The United Church of Christ National Collaborative on Immigration has worked with interfaith partners to pressure President Obama to grant Central American migrants Temporary Protective Status, stop deportations, stop family detention, and help pass the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act for children in asylum proceedings. We have a moral responsibility to stop the abysmal human rights abuses in Mexico and in the U.S. and uphold our proud tradition of compassion, welcome, and hospitality.

Noel Andersen is the National Grassroots Coordinator.

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