Advocates for Central American mothers and children being held in detention in the United States while seeking asylum had hoped that someone from the White House, or maybe the National Security Council, would show up at a Monday hearing of international human rights monitors.
Instead, the administration sent officials who implement policy, but don’t set it, to answer concerns about how the Department of Homeland Security has handled the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
But their disappointment in the president is even greater.
“You’d think that this administration, at this point in time, would want to do the right thing” in guaranteeing due process to children, said Mary Meg McCarthy of the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center. In some ways, she said, their rights were actually better protected under George W. Bush: “The head of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] at that time, Julie Myers, really believed in access to legal counsel, so there was at least that recognition.”
Now, she feels the added irritant of “this false compassion, too. What you hear from the administration is, ‘We’re trying to protect children from the coyotes,’ ’’ — the traffickers they pay to bring them here — “when they wouldn’t be making these journeys if their lives weren’t in danger.”
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama raised hopes high on the separate issue of immigration reform: “What I can guarantee,’’ he said, “is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”
It isn’t only that those expectations were dashed, said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in the District, but that there hasn’t been much consistency from President Obama over the years.
With Bush, Nuñez said, “we kind of knew where he was coming from. His party hamstrung him in the end,’’ and the immigration reform he pushed for never came close to happening then, either. “But Obama says both things’’ — making promises and then pulling back from them when the political calculus changes — “and that’s what I find most frustrating.” After promising executive action on immigration by the end of this summer, “he came back to the immigration community and said, ‘Oops.’ ’’ Obama says he is waiting until after the upcoming election to act.
On the issue of unaccompanied minors, Obama has acknowledged the seriousness of the gang violence that children are fleeing, but he also has suggested that rumors implying that those who arrived illegally could stay for years were a major factor in the influx.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a total of 66,127 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — up from 38,757 the year before. Although the crisis has eased for now, in part because of the usual lull during hot summer months, “a resurgent flood is possible,’’ said Timothy Zúñiga-Brown of the State Department.
And while the focus domestically “is on stemming the flow of migrants,” he said, the administration is also “making every effort to treat immigrant children humanely.”
In Central America, the United States is trying to educate people about the dangers of making part of the trip tied into a small space above the wheels of trains known as ‘La Bestia,’ or The Beast. Those dangers are well known because of the number of people who have lost lives and limbs traveling that way.
After the hearing, Nuñez said that Zúñiga-Brown and the other officials who attended “just talked in generalities” about hoping to process some asylum applications in Central America, so that those with solid claims would not have to risk their lives traveling here to apply.
But how would that work? How would they stay safe while waiting for a hearing there?
Meanwhile, advocates told the commission, which monitors the human rights compliance of all members of the Organization of American States, that:
●U.S. funding for interdiction programs in Mexico — programs that turn Central Americans back before they reach our border — makes it harder for those with legitimate asylum claims to reach safety.
●The almost automatic detention of mothers and children violates human rights law, which urges a presumption against detention.
●Some asylum seekers report being turned away at the border without a hearing and without being questioned in a language they understood. Several said that Border Patrol officers told them they would be held indefinitely if they did not withdraw their claims.
●There is no independent, outside oversight of detention facilities.
In response, Megan Mack, the Department of Homeland Security officer for civil rights and civil liberties, mentioned the relaunch of the “Dangers of the Journey” education campaign for those considering the journey, along with expanded efforts to prosecute traffickers and to seek funding for legal services for unaccompanied children.
Commissioner Felipe Gonzalez said a key problem for the commission was the issue of children and their families being routinely detained in the first place. When the United States announced in 2009 that it was converting the T. Don Hutto facility in Texas from a family detention center to one for women only, after similar concerns were raised about the practice of incarcerating children, “we thought it had ended for good,” Gonzalez said.
The commission can, at least theoretically, apply pressure. But advocates aren’t counting on it. And if Democrats lose the Senate, Nuñez said, “the political calculus will change again, and we’ll maybe just get some tweaks” on immigration generally. “He’s already a lame duck,’’ he said of the president, “and he’s going to decide how to spend the little amount of capital he has left.”